SAN MATEO (05/15/2000) - As one of the most respected comparison shopping sites on the Web, BizRate Inc. resembles a cross between Consumer Reports and ZagatSurvey. The site takes customer feedback and provides consolidated, comprehensive information about e-commerce sites on the Internet.
In aggregating so much disparate information all over the Internet, BizRate.com has its work cut out for it. Testing the outer limits of information exchange, co-founder and CTO Henri Asseily says about half of his company is dedicated to making technology that scours the Internet in search of the latest product information.
Infoworld Editor at Large Dan Briody talked with Asseily to discuss his concerns, from both a business and technology perspective.
InfoWorld: What are your primary concerns about technology?
Asseily: Mostly I'm concerned about the malicious hacking that is going on.
Hacking can be good, but not the malicious kind. Unfortunately, it is really easy to mess with someone's network, and it is very hard for a company to defend against it. It takes powerful network engineers to defend against it.
Plus, it is rather costly in both time and resources.
Another concern that I have is that I would love to find stable hardware platforms and solid application software. In particular, ones from vendors that don't lie about the capabilities. I've been very disappointed when companies rush the job, push products out and hype them up. It happens way too much. You cannot trust any vendor 100 percent.
And finally, there's the data exchange problem. Things still aren't standardized. Every time we exchange data between new companies we have to reinvent the wheel. It is pretty bad.
InfoWorld: What are some of the unique problems you run into when collaborating with so many different companies?
Asseily: Technologically speaking, it is a question of integrating all the sources of data. The problems you run into are things like getting data from one company to another in different formats. Also, you have to get information from sites that may or may not be collaborating with you. And the information can have a lot of holes in it, so it is difficult to get complete information on a timely basis. In order to provide the correct information to consumers, you have to apply some very advanced techniques to make sense out of it all.
InfoWorld: How do you view technology as a competitive advantage in your business?
Asseily: Technology is never a source of lasting competitive advantage. It may be a temporary advantage and you can try to keep ahead of the curve, but one piece of technology is never the answer. Our source of advantage is our ties with our partners.
InfoWorld: What technologies do you use, and what are some of the changes you see coming?
Asseily: We have our product search engine, something we fully built in house.
We could never have found anything off the shelf that could have done what it does for us. At the end of the day, we had to do everything ourselves. I would have loved to outsource, but unfortunately we could not [do that].
We also have a rating system, which is a census, and we do a lot of analysis with that. That is unique to us, and we need to keep improving on it.
Our new acquisition, eBoodle, is bringing some very powerful technology because it is very expandable, very tightly coded, and well done.
And we've been using XML a lot. XML is a very powerful syntax for all sorts of things. The problem is that XML itself is not great for information sharing because you have to have the same dictionary. It is a good syntax, but unless the two companies have the same dictionary, it doesn't work.
InfoWorld: How do you view the evolution of the role of the CTO?
Asseily: As CTO and co-founder, the most important role I have is to be able to translate the business strategy into exact technology tasks. In our company, half the company is technology and deals a great deal with technology.
As CTO, when we talk strategy and business and what we want to achieve, I need to translate it and determine whether it is feasible or not. Then I figure what pieces are needed, and then I figure out the timing and see if it fits our profile or not. I have to focus on the business objective and then achieve it.
InfoWorld: You have already expressed some disdain for the way technology providers overpromise and underdeliver. How do you handle the relationships with those vendors?
Asseily: There is so much to do here, and there are so many projects that need to be linked together.
My priority is to see that all parties work together properly. I try not to deal with the vendors directly at all. We have three vice presidents, and those are the guys that will deal with the vendors. Even they will sometimes delegate to department managers. I don't want to deal with the vendors because I don't have the time to do that. If you can trust your people, you can trust [the vendors]. I don't want to centralize power.
InfoWorld: Was your business even a possibility before the advent of the Internet? What about the Internet makes BizRate.com possible?
Asseily: Our business is based on the fact that the Internet makes information flow very efficiently. BizRate.com is dedicated to improving commerce by creating the perfect marketplace, a place where buyers and sellers meet to conduct the most efficient and satisfying commerce possible. As such, BizRate.com cannot exit without the Internet.
InfoWorld: What are the competitive pressures you're currently experiencing?
How do you think those competitive pressures will change in the next 12 months?
Asseily: Currently the major points are not competitive but logistical, as far as our relationships with merchants are concerned. With no defined data exchange mechanisms and dictionaries, it is difficult to have standardized communication channels. On the consumer side, it's the usual battle for eyeballs that all the Web sites are fighting, and we must provide the best purchasing experience for consumers. In the next 12 months, consumer issues will keep intensifying, but on the merchant side I think that we will see smoother integration, with fewer e-commerce portals vying for the space.
InfoWorld: What technology initiatives are you involved in that will make your company more competitive?
Asseily: Massive custom-automation tools, as well as tracking and data mining tools.
InfoWorld: How are changing technology models altering your business plans?
Asseily: They're not. Technology is always changing. It has been that way for the past four years since we started the company, and we see no slowdown in sight. Business plans must always take into account changing technology.
Whenever you plan for a product to be released in six months, you must also extrapolate the state of hardware and software. It may save you many man-hours of optimizations or rewrites.
InfoWorld: What technologies do you perceive are going to be hot this year?
Asseily: We will see solid support by database and hardware vendors for e-commerce needs, such as powerful SSL [Secure Sockets Layer] and XML accelerators, cost-effective database replication, dynamic site caching, etc.
The first versions of these tools have been available for some time, but I think that they are finally maturing, to be used in 24/7, high-availability e-commerce settings.
Henri Asseily, BizRate.com
Title: CTO and co-founder
Biggest success: Building a technology architecture that has held up to Internet changesKey challenges: Designing, developing, and implementing completely new products in only four weeks; overseeing the data systems and automation divisions of BizRate.comPersonal note: Car racing, skate sailing, and waiting for Rocket Arena 3.