As more companies begin to use the Internet to conduct business IBM is gearing up to help companies take full advantages of electronic commerce.
As market conditions worldwide change, the level of competition in all businesses has become tougher and many companies are looking to the Internet to aid that transition. What IBM wants to do is help any form of client connect to any type of server for any type of information - what it calls ?pervasive computing' - preferably by integrating existing applications with Java.
Tony Occelshaw, IBM?s software strategist for the Emea region, said: "People need to integrate new strategy with their existing systems as they are doing the same business they always did, just using a new medium."
IBM has defined different stages of evolution to transform a traditional business into an e-business. Most companies have moved their Web presence from a simple online brochure, to providing limited interaction with customers. But few are at the final stage - the deployment of full function e-business applications on the Web for real time financial and mission critical business transactions.
This is the real challenge and brings greater risk and reward than current dabbling with the Web. Before considering the benefits of electronic trading, companies are laying themselves open to problems just by putting their core business applications and services out on the Web.
Occleshaw warned; "The characteristics of the Net do not instil confidence in people. What is needed is the same reliability as with the IT system."
To successfully make this leap, IBM believes that three things are crucial - security, Java enablement and Ramps (reliability, availability, manageability, performance and serviceability). The elements in Ramps are what IBM expects companies would naturally demand for business critical computing, and just because these are now on the Internet, companies should not lower their expectations of a system.
This is where IBM?s MQSeries of products comes in. This portfolio of message oriented middleware solutions now forms part of the company?s Business Integration initiative. MQSeries simplifies the task of connecting applications across different environments.
David Gee, programme director for Alphaworks and Java marketing, believes that a successful e-business is all about marrying Web technology and Java with existing business processes. He said: "We want a Java ubiquity, where Java is everywhere, in middleware and in tools. And we are looking into incorporating Java into thin clients and PDAs."
IBM believes that Java will continue to play an important role in the evolution of the Internet. Gee said: "Java is the critical component in doing e-business."
Gee believes IBM?s role is to help customers move to the final stage of the Internet while occupying the middle, integrating ground - "At one end is Sun and right at the other is Microsoft," he said. He wants IBM to be the voice of reason amid those battles. "We are investing a lot of time, money and people into making this work, but it is not a religious war," he said.
IBM?s priority for this year is to establish a Network Computing Framework for e-business to help the Java industry mature. But Gee realises Java?s limitation. "It is not a cure for cancer. Java is really good at some things and not others," he said.
There are still drawbacks with the performance, he admits. "We are still striving for a 'write once run anywhere concept'," he added.
Java is suitable for companies that have a lot of data from disparate sources and the addition of Java turns it into e-business. As it also runs on any platform, Gee believes that a world where we see Java on everything from a pager to a video recorder will first take shape in Europe, rather than the US.
As it is the telecomms companies that will drive the development, the standards in Europe are better than in the US. "The most wired countries are where we will see the first adoption of mass devices running Java, in the Nordic countries for example," he said.
To ensure success in this strategy IBM is aware that its image will need revamping. Gee is responsible for the Alphaworks project, an online research laboratory which creates a kind of technical community of Java developers and business professionals. Here code is put up on the site and developers are invited to create products with it, which they then license.
Gee said: "This is an example of how IBM is going through a cultural revolution." By opening up to new ideas from the developer community IBM saves time and money and can incorporate these ideas into new products more quickly and efficiently - bringing new and innovative products to market sooner.
IBM is currently working with many companies to help transform their businesses into e-businesses. It has found that three categories of industry are first to embrace the full potential of the Internet commerce: banking and finance, retail and distribution.
In finance, stockbroker Charles Schwab expects to be doing up to 70 per cent of its business online this year. IBM is also conducting its biggest project in South America with the Banco do Brazil. Clothes retailer Eddie Bauer has integrated its online operation with its outlets to combine information gathered from customers whether they shop online or offline.
Such companies are still the exceptions however - and even more so outside the US. With most businesses teetering on the brink of stage two of Internet working, it will be years before most move to level three - but that move will provide a lucrative market for the likes of IBM.
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