Internet time, as we are all learning, moves a lot faster than ordinary time. It already seems ages since companies first began putting up Web sites, like so many billboards on the information superhighway. Not only have the billboards become more enticing–with their Java applets, their streaming audio and video– they’ve also become more functional, serving as gateways for E-commerce.
Today, thanks to Internet commerce software and services, more and more companies are setting up Web stores–and more and more consumers are buying. Online retail revenue should reach $12 billion in 1999, according to Internet analysts Jupiter Communications LLC, and rise to $41 billion by 2002. These are modest sums by business-to-business standards, but that isn’t stopping sellers from rushing to the Web.
Small companies can manage fine with low-end Web stores or hosted storefront services. But midsized and larger companies that expect to do a lot of business on the Web need more. They need servers that can provide rich functionality and handle thousands of simultaneous shoppers. They demand Web stores that can be integrated with multiple databases and systems — accounting and order-entry, inventory and fulfillment, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management.
The chart at the end of this article lists seven leading vendors of high-end Internet commerce applications–the foundations of high- traffic Web stores. Be forewarned, though: industry analysts advise that no one vendor is close to providing a complete, end-to-end solution (see “The Ideal E-Store,” below).
High-end Web-store software falls into two categories, according to Erica Rugullies, a director at Giga Information Group, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based IT advisory firm. One is the platform and toolkit, typified by products from IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp. These products provide basic commerce-server functionality, including a catalog, plus software tools for developing other functions. The other category is the packaged application, such as those offered by BroadVision and Open Market Inc. These applications come preloaded with much more out- of-the-box functionality. Both kinds of commerce servers provide interfaces for integrating third-party software.
Which category is cheapest? It’s a wash, at least for large companies, says Rugullies. She explains that you can spend, for example, a mere $6,000 on a license for Microsoft’s Site Server Commerce Edition, but that expense may represent only 5 percent of the total cost of assembling and deploying a fully featured system. A high-end system like InterWorld Corp.’s may cost $250,000 per Unix server, but that sum may compose two-thirds of the total deployed cost.
Which category is best? It depends. The platform-and-toolkit approach has the strength of flexibility; packages like Site Server and IBM’s Net.commerce can be tailored to companies’ needs–and every company’s E- commerce needs are different. But that flexibility is achieved at the price of extensive development work. By contrast, packaged applications offer a more comprehensive, more monolithic solution, and are generally faster to install. But experts warn that monolithic systems may be difficult to modify in response to, say, changes in business models or to acquisitions.