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August 25, 1998


The enabling technologies for e-commerce

Priya Ganapati at Pragati Maidan

Email this story to a friend. Back to IIW coverage index. Enthusiasm ran in the air, whetted by the earlier session on the fundamentals of e-commerce. The hall was packed to capacity with delegates thirsting for more about the technologies that would make e-commerce possible.

In a highly technical session that saw many of the delegates yawning, Satish Sukumar, web technologist,, talked about the underlying set of points that would enable transactions over the Internet.

Sukumar explained some very complex and difficult ideas using a hypothetical e-commerce site 'Our Store' on the Internet.

A list of attributes that 'Our Store' had to have was drawn up. "The shop should have a set of shelves, a window dressing, good entrance and navigation, search mechanisms and a shopping cart," he said.

He then introduced the concept of Web applications and the need for it. "A Web server is not an applications server. It cannot maintain state, which means it cannot work in the remember-and-reply mode. For example, if you ask for home.htm and then ask for page1.htm, it wouldn't co-relate the two. Also it cannot interface by itself with the messaging systems," he explained.

Web applications, however, implement business logic and speak to web servers using HTML/ HTTP.

They also speak to other applications and data stores in languages understandable by these applications and data stores.

Web applications can interface with almost any kind of data stores like text files and ODBC compatible databases.

The applications could be used anywhere from search/browse engines to shopping carts. The other components of the online store would include data store, browse/search engines, the shopping cart, an order processing pipeline and the payment mechanism.

Sukumar stressed that the store would have to have accurate descriptors and be divided into various categories so that navigation would become easier.

This would also help the search engines to throw up the site more frequently. The descriptors would have to vary across various families.

"Intuitive categorisation would make navigation easier. Here there is a small problem. If you need to make accurate descriptors let us take the example of Our Store that has books as well as music. Then you have to write two versions for the search engine, for the books and the music part, we cannot keep writing for the various sections that we have. The idea here is to build dynamicity into the search engines on our site," he revealed.

Sukumar had some tricks for the marketers. "The product page should be such that anybody who comes to it should click at the buy-now button at the bottom. But that does not mean that he cannot go without buying anything," he said in one of the few lighter moments of the presentation.

He then elaborated on the ways of storing product information. "I think that individual HTML pages are the best way of doing this for small e-commerce environments. You could also store them as flat text files or in the form of relational databases that are extremely popular. However the most fascinating way of doing this would be to have a object database that would unlike others store the product attributes together," he elaborated.

Ideally the data stores would store department, category and product descriptions along with user and order information.

Sukumar then delved into how users could be tracked over the Internet. The different ways of doing this would be by using cookies, state maintenance identifiers or by using part of the URLs. The drawback of cookies would be that being machine dependent they would not be able to track the user if the computer was changed.

And all those who love jargon and want to talk in the latest IT lingo the new term that emerged was the 'shopping cart'. "A shopping cart is a temporary data store. Information about the products picked up by the users, the quantity and the price are shared here. Unlike the conventional unique cart for the shopper, here there is only one cart for all. There are user fields to identify the user and his cart," he pointed out.

In the Indian scenario, the PIN number was suggested as an alternative in lieu of digital certificates while adopting a payment mechanism. There is also a need for businesses to duplicate information and store it as the order details could change from time to time and hence an absolute record is essential.

Sukumar then suggested what he called the "chocolate and nuts over the vanilla store". "Personalisation and membership is absolutely essential. This helps to create a richer and interactive shopping environment. It can be implemented using any CDAP, which is a directory protocol, compatible directory engine," he revealed.

He then launched into a detailed description about the fundamentals and working of electronic data exchange. These twenty minutes saw many managers walking out, complaining that they already knew about it.

Back to IIW coverage index. "The key enabling technology in business-to-business e-commerce is to arrive at a standard set of messages shared by all the participants. This is where EDI comes in," Sukumar justified.

But then the reaction to the session was unanimous. "Wholly technical but good for those who wanted a technical updates."

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