Down to the Nitty-Gritty

BOSTON (06/12/2000) - As dot-com start-ups and Old Economy companies exploit the Web as a new channel for doing business, they're challenged to maintain their relationships with customers and suppliers. The fastest-growing emerging companies are providing some answers.

Computerworld identified the most successful of the Emerging 100 by looking for revenue growth, new products, acquisitions and initial public offerings (IPO), among other indicators. We found many in the customer care, supply-chain management, e-commerce and network markets.

Companies such as Agile Software Corp., Broadvision Inc., CommercialWare Inc., Extricity Software Inc. and Kana Communications Inc. are helping customers build and solidify relationships with customers and suppliers over the Web.

Dell Computer Corp. began using Agile's Agile Anywhere suite of Web-based collaboration software in March to maintain a "private supplier exchange" with makers of components. Dell will use the exchange to quickly and privately notify suppliers of changes in product configurations and component needs. The Dell deal came near the end of a fiscal year in which Agile saw its revenue nearly double to $32 million, initiated a 2-for-1 stock split and saw 50% growth in its customer base. But, still in its initial growth stage, Agile lost $35 million for the year.

Broadvision's One-to-One Financial software, a soup-to-nuts online financial application with built-in customer care and marketing tools, is helping Jeremy Jaffe personalize Web connections with brokers and consumers doing business with Boston-based Liberty Financial Cos., where Jaffe is vice president and head of e-commerce. "I call it just-in-time communication," Jaffe says. "It allows you to provide the right information to the right people at the right time."

Jaffe says building an e-commerce presence has been difficult and expensive, and he says he wishes for more shrink-wrapped software. He says Liberty's e-commerce efforts will include a mix of off-line and online channels, with wireless services for customers just on the horizon.

According to Barry Ariko, the new president and CEO of Extricity, business-to-business e-commerce is already in its second generation: It's become B-to-B relationship management. Extricity, which sells application-server software that allows business partners to communicate securely over the Web, has been on a roll of late. In February it released a new software platform for creating Web-based trading markets. In May, it secured a $50 million round of mezzanine financing and filed for an IPO.

"Real value happens in the management of relationships between companies," Ariko says. So the market's focus is shifting away from what Extricity co-founder Greg Olsen calls the "B-to-B pipes"- enterprise application integration tools and messaging middleware that he says are becoming commodities - toward value-added services such as industry-specific templates and programming tools that allow business partners to quickly set up B-to-B links.

Listen to e-commerce enablers and the analysts who track them, and a broader theme emerges: integration. Many of the challenges aren't new, such as fitting legacy applications to new ones, melding the business processes of companies or linking consumers to customer service centers. But integration is a multicompany - and often worldwide - job involving virtual private networks, extranets and other secure Web connections.

Deciding who has what rights to participate in what ways in this tangle of public and private networks is a major challenge, one that companies such as Extricity are paid to help figure out and automate. Extricity Alliance Manager 4.0, for example, allows business partners to specify which processes must be performed jointly and which can be changed without consulting the other company.

While popular security schemes such as Secure Sockets Layer encryption and digital certificates are part of the answer, there's no one-size-fits-all standard, according to vendors and analysts. Companies tend to buy a single vendor's B-to-B platform and then get business partners to adopt it.

The emergence of XML as the glue for Web-based collaboration is enabling many B-to-B applications. It plays a key role in software from Agile, Extricity, Vignette Corp. and other break-out Emerging 100 companies. But, like SQL, XML is customizable, so one vendor's version doesn't always work with another's.

Yet promising standardization efforts are under way. One example: the Product Definition Exchange, a standard similar to Portable Document Format for exchanging documents among members of a supply chain.

Underpinning the burgeoning commerce communities are networks that are faster, often cheaper and loaded with value-added services such as IP telephony and videoconferencing. Increasingly, parts of an enterprise's network, such as fault tolerance and security, or server farms for hosting Web sites, are outsourced. Often, entire wide-area networks are being managed by third parties.

Essex is a freelance writer in Antrim, New Hampshire

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