Centra IPO Counts on 'Live Collaboration' Buzz

SAN FRANCISCO (01/31/2000) - On Thursday, Centra Software Inc. is slated to begin its initial public offering, a move that will place it on the center stage in the fast-developing market for real-time, business-to-business collaboration (B2B) software.

Centra and a small group of competitors are offering software designed to enhance organizational activities such as employee training, customer relations and other business communication through of voice-over Internet protocol (VOIP) audioconferencing, application sharing and other collaborative activities.

Centra attests to the hot competition for the niche within the burgeoning B2B technology sector in documents it filed in its IPO registration statement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

It lists its competitors as PlaceWare Inc., of Mountain View, California; LearnLinc Corp., of Troy, New York; WebEx Inc. of San Jose, California; Lotus Development Corp., of Cambridge, Massachusetts; and InterWise Inc., of Santa Clara, California. In addition, Siebel Systems Inc., of San Mateo, California is extending its enterprise software applications with collaboration features, and Oracle Corp. and SAP AG are considering a similar move, the statement said.

"The market for live e-business collaboration solutions is immature, intensely competitive, developing rapidly and subject to rapid technological change," Centra said.

Still, Centra says its position as first mover will attract a healthy response to its public offering. "There is a land rush going on right now if you look at Internet companies," Chris Reed, Centra vice president for product marketing, said.

The company's flagship product, the Web-based enterprise application Centra 99, is designed to allow for virtual teamwork, online services, collaborative transactions and corporate learning. It supports VOIP capabilities, shared work environments and human interaction over the Internet that allow for real-time communications.

Centra 99 also integrates with Microsoft Corp.'s BackOffice and Digital Dashboard.

One appealing aspect of the technology is the deployment of the company's proprietary software that creates a classroom or meeting environment by developing a "choreography" of social interaction over the Web, Reed said. For example, if a remote meeting participant wants to say something, he clicks on a hand icon that connotes the raising of a hand in class. The combination of VOIP, digital content sharing, application sharing and the "choreography" creates the collaboration.

Nortel Networks Corp. is using Centra 99 to run virtual classrooms and collaborative events over its intranet, extranet and the Internet, Rick Burgess, "e-learning" team leader for Nortel's educational service media group, said. "Centra 99 is used to train employees and business partners, conduct live, online meetings, facilitate brainstorming sessions, demo software products to prospects, and receive software application training from vendors on products we've purchased."

There is little doubt that the technology is coming into the fore at a key time in the evolution of online technology, several analysts said. "Business to business is extremely hot right now," Don Brown, chairman of D.H. Brown Associates, a technology research firm, said. "Plus, you're talking about collaborative tools that businesses would use every day. Collaborative tools are an easy sell."

Indeed, a forecast from market research company Gartner Group Inc. last week said business-to-business e-commerce could grow to $7.29 trillion in 2004. And business-to-business collaboration growth within that segment has just begun.

"The online learning world is all new and changing rapidly," Jim Ayube, a senior analyst with market research company the Aberdeen Group Inc. "Companies are still trying to figure out how to do it."

Centra 99 is used by large corporations and is priced at between $50,000 and $100,000, Reed said.

Centra, in Lexington, Massachusetts can be reached at +1-781-861-7000, or at http://www.centra.com.

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