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SAN MATEO (07/17/2000) - President Clinton's recent signing of the electronic signature bill was hailed as a monumental moment. In one sense it is a major step forward, but cast in another light it is not so unexpected. More important, the bill has major implications for businesses of all stripes between now and March 1, 2001, when companies can begin accepting e-signatures on legal documents.

The e-signature bill is monumental in the historical sense because it marks a milestone on the pathway forward in the New Economy. However, the sign-off of the bill at the federal level is not such a huge deal if you consider that 40 states already had passed e-signature laws.

With the sign-off of the federal e-signature bill complete, businesses in all sectors will need to meet two inter-related challenges to compete in the world of e-signatures: One has to do with workflow, and the other with which e-signature solution you choose.

Workflow issues in an e-signature world are pretty obvious. Every business process you have for hard-copy documents that involve signatures will have to be redesigned. You will not have to replace your existing document management processes, but the arrival of e-signatures will alter your methods of conducting business.

Much of the focus of digital signatures has been in the business-to-consumer space. And, yes, there are significant implications, efficiencies, and cost savings that will be brought about by implementing e-signatures for consumer-based transactions.

But there are also implications and revised structure needed in business-to-business processes. Consider procurement or fulfillment: How will e-signatures change those?

Business process workflow can certainly be altered to accommodate e-signatures.

But the second issue -- deciding which e-signature solution to implement -- will have a much larger impact on who will and won't be successful at the e-signature game.

As you might expect, providers of e-signature solutions are popping up all over. Yet their approaches to e-signatures can be quite different. For example, OnSign Inc.'s first release (www.onsign.com) supports e-signatures only for Microsoft Word 97 and Word 2000. The beta of OnSign's 2.0 product adds support for Microsoft Outlook 98 and 2000. The company plans to add support for Lotus Notes and Eudora in an upcoming release.

Likewise, E-Signature of Canada (www.e-signature.com) supports e-signatures at an application level. The company lets end-users of any Windows, Macintosh, or OS/2 applications easily add e-signatures.

The folks at SignOnline Inc. (www.isignonline.com) offer signing software that leverages the Portable Document Format (PDF). Documents are transmitted and received in PDF, and signOnline's signing solution is available as a PDF plug-in.

Communication Intelligence Corp. (www.cic.com) is meeting the challenge in a number of ways. The company's iSign product (a software development kit) is limited to those using the Windows platform and ActiveX controls.

Communication Intelligence also offers Sign-it in versions for Microsoft Word or Outlook and a version that supports e-signatures in PDF files. The company is also supporting digital signatures on Palm devices, Pocket PCs, and the Linux platform.

As you can see, e-signature solutions can vary widely. I'd argue that in moving from the world of platform-and application-specific software to computing environments that are highly interconnected, e-signature solutions will need to be implemented using formats, whether software or service-based, that reach the widest audience.

Using PDF is a start in the right direction. Those who implement application-and platform-specific e-signature solutions will be less successful over the long haul than those who choose open formats that are widely accessible to consumers and businesses alike.

A recent Gartner report on e-signatures predicts this same type of implementation issue in the short haul. The research firm expects that first-generation e-signature solutions will be focused on platform-and application-specific solutions.

By early next year, many second-generation e-signature solutions will be implemented using open standards. These second-generation products and services will better integrate with corporate databases and security mechanisms, including biometrics.

This is a perfect time to assess current business processes that require signatures. No industry is immune from the e-signature challenge. There are some big paybacks for implementing e-signature technology -- especially for big-ticket transactions in the consumer space and in b-to-b processes. In particular, I like the idea of using an e-signature to simplify auto and home loan processes and to speed up supply-chain operations.

This year, determine what changes you'll need to make to support e-signatures.

More important, carefully examine available e-signature solutions and watch where they are going. Choose solutions and services that are platform and application agnostic. And look for those that will best integrate with the rest of your data and your security strategy.

Are your business processes e-signature ready? What solutions will you choose?

Write to me at maggie_biggs@infoworld.com.

Maggie Biggs is director of the InfoWorld Test Center.

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