ECOMMERCE DAY OF THE HYBRIDS[QQ] Don't know if you've heard this yet - but apparently this Internet thing's going to be big in business. Seriously, Comdex's main message for ebusiness is: We are now moving into the world of the hybrid, the combination of the pure-play cybercompany and the traditional bricks and mortar. This combination may be internal, with firms looking at how best to sponsor e-initiatives internally, or through partnership between New Economy firms and the mainstream. One such example is manufacturing giant Procter & Gamble, which to all intents and purposes opened its ecommerce site in Silicon Valley as a new startup, removed from traditional structures at its Cincinatti headquarters. The focus means extra pressure on IT. 'Eighty per cent of an IT manager's time is now spent speaking business with the chief executive and line-of-business managers,' says Gopi Bala, director of management strategies service for analyst The Yankee Group. Unisys chairman and chief executive Larry Weinbach adds: 'We're seeing the second wave. Dot coms need bricks and mortars, and both sides have to work. You need the web front end, the order processing software and the warehouse.' For business-to-business, supply chain will be the first area of hybridisation - and a perilous one. 'There are lots of risks being an early user of these systems,' warns Albert Pang, research manager for ecommerce software at analyst IDC. The most dramatic failures will be associated with the chain of third-party companies needed to make electronic procurement possible. 'There'll be a lot of players involved - payment enablers, logistics and deliveries companies, fulfillers. A lot of people will extend between you and the businesses you're selling to or buying from. With all these partners, mistakes will happen,' Pang says. He related the story of a web flower seller whose delivery agent sent a funeral wreath with a 'Rest in Peace' message to the wrong address. A bigger problem was the delivery of a bouquet bearing the message 'good luck in your new position' to the home of the bereaved. Minimising the risk of that sort of failure will involve the careful selection of electronic procurement system suppliers to ensure the most efficient communications between trading parties. 'There isn't going to be one single piece of software that will work perfectly,' says Pang. 'Take the best-of-breed approach: use point solutions. Companies such as Oracle are trying to offer single solutions, but that approach didn't work in the client/server era, so why should it work it now?' COMDEX SOUNDBITE EBUSINESS 'Everything with a digital heartbeat is going to be connected to the Net.' Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems chief executive 'I don't think there is a centre to the Net.' Bill Joy, Sun chief scientist BEYOND THE PC INTERNET APPLIANCES Perhaps Bill Gates can be forgiven for not wanting to talk too much in Las Vegas about his firm's legal battles. And in some ways he was right to concentrate on the 'personal web', for Comdex Fall 1999 was, above all else, 'The Coming Of The Internet Appliance'. Gates showed off a prototype of a Web Companion specially designed to work with MSN Services and MSN Internet Access. The units come preconfigured with an email account, ready to connect to the Internet. Many other vendors showed off Internet devices, including National Semiconductor, which launched applications for its little-publicised Intel-compatible PC-on-a-chip, Geode. These included the Izzi, a wireless web pad from Samsung, and Be showcased a version of its Be operating system for web pads. Many of these Internet Appliance products blur the distinction between personal digital assistants and the mobile telephone. Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola, and 3Com launched a selection of handhelds, mobile phones and other devices between them. Sony showcased its Internet-friendly Playstation II, available next autumn. The console uses DVD technology backed by a 128-bit processor developed in conjunction with Toshiba, plus ports for connection to the Internet or other devices. The aim, according to Sony's president and chief executive Noboyuki Idei, is to create a networked environment where the PC will be only one component along with broadband and wireless exchange based on standards such as Bluetooth. WINDOWS 2000 THE FUTURE STARTS HERE One of the show treats at Comdex was a special preview of the new James Bond movie, The World Is Not Enough, in which 007 uses a Windows CE machine. The film's title seems more fitted to CE's big brother, though. For if anything, the last Comdex of the 20th century served mainly as an introductory course for Windows 2000. There was little new news from Microsoft about the next release of Windows NT, beyond confirmation of the availability of release candidate three, and president Steve Ballmer reiterating that 17 February is the confirmed release date for the operating system. Microsoft also enlisted enterprise players such as Unisys and EMC to help allay any remaining credibility problems concerning Windows 2000 scalability. A special ecommerce site ran 24 hours a day for all five days of the show, featuring 20 Windows 2000 web servers processing 4,000 transactions a second and three billion hits a day. Microsoft realises NT's fragility must be addressed for the operating system to become a serious data centre candidate. 'People perceive that NT is not reliable enough for mission-critical applications,' Deborah Willingham, vice president of business and enterprise marketing for Windows 2000, told The Wall Street Journal prior to Comdex. 'We have to set aside people's concerns before we can get into the details of Windows 2000.' It was left to EMC chief executive and president Mike Ruettgers to sum up why users are prepared to wait for Microsoft to get NT and Windows 2000 to work: Unix, and its fragmentation. 'We predicted two-and-a-half years ago that NT would supplant Unix in the data center,' he says. 'With NT, users can get the best choice of software. The software providers became tired of porting to 45 different flavours of Unix, and so want to write for one operating system. This leads to a broader choice for customers in software. Customers like NT for this, not necessarily for the sophistication of any individual technology pieces.' The fact that Windows 2000's main rival, Linux, is Unix sourced from the developer community, was an irony not lost on its audience. LINUX PENGUIN POWER The Linux penguin fairly swaggered through Las Vegas having finally earned the industry respect it always thought it deserved. Linux developer Linus Torvalds became the first Comdex keynote speaker not to head a juggernaut IT corporation. And his acolytes were granted their own sideshow in the form of Linux Business Expo '99, which ran alongside Comdex Fall and shared one of its convention centres. Anyone doubting Torvalds' status as an industry hero should have seen his reception. John 'Mad Dog' Hall - former director of lobby group Linux International - set the tone for Torvalds' keynote. He introduced the Finnish developer as 'someone I think of as a son, a friend and one of the best people I know.' The moment Torvalds stepped on stage the audience gave him a standing ovation, and his speech was punctuated throughout with further applause and whoops. 'Penguins everywhere,' he boasted during the hour-long address, producing from his pocket a Linux credit-card suitably illustrated with a picture of IT's most famous sea-bird. The only black spot was the failure of Linux to establish a bridgehead in the desktop market, which Torvalds noted as 'the saddest thing'. 'The desktop is still the most strategically important area. And it's still the hardest market to enter, by far,' he admitted. Meanwhile, Corel and Linux supplier Red Hat used the show as an opportunity for announcements aimed at redressing that weakness. Corel launched its Corel Linux aimed at the desktop, and chief executive Michael Cowpland, currently under investigation by Canadian authorities for alleged insider dealing, said the company had adopted Linux because it offered 'freedom to innovate, freedom to partner, freedom from Microsoft control and fine print and freedom to choose processor chips'. Red Hat chief executive Robert Young announced the $674 million (£400m) acquisition of Linux tools vendor Cygnus Solutions, a move he says will boost application development on Linux. He dismissed lack of Linux on the desktop, saying: 'When is Linux going to be successful on the desktop? What a boring question. The desktop is an 80s architecture connecting Dos-based machines to the mainframe.' Instead, Young promoted Linux as an operating system suited to small devices. 'The killer apps of the 21st century are going to run on Internet appliances. Don't worry about 400 million PCs out there, think about the other 5.6 billion people on the planet,' he said. Torvalds also spoke about Linux's future as an embedded operating system, but added it must learn to use less memory. 'We'll certainly see it on the cell-phone, but for the first few years you'll go like this,' he said - miming carrying a lead brick in his pocket. DISTRIBUTED COMPUTING THE NC IS DEAD - LONG LIVE THE NC? Unlike Larry Ellison's network computer, the thin client push being championed by Microsoft and Sun Microsystems requires less of a leap of faith. Instead of requiring replacement clients and a new server-side operating system, the models being pushed by these two companies are far more practical - and offer solutions to mobile users from day one. The two models, outlined at Comdex, are: Microsoft Office Online: - Client computers can run existing 32-bit Windows installations (9x, NT) or Windows CE - Windows 2000 can be used as both a back office server operating system and the platform offered through the terminal session - An optimised Office 2000 suite forms the main Microsoft application offering being licensed to application service providers (ASPs) - Microsoft Terminal Services client uses between 200K and 700K for reception of the service - Cost is expected to be around $50-$500 (£30-£300) depending on the applications and services offered by the ASP. Sun Microsystems StarOffice: - An application suite (StarOffice 5.1) available for download from CD or Sun Microsystems' web site - Users can run the package on any 32-bit Windows, OS/2, Solaris or Linux-based computer or laptop, and work with HTML, Microsoft Office and other document formats either online or offline - Users will be able to synchronise documents between the StarOffice application and a web-based version of the suite called StarPortal, which will offer all the same features but through a web browser accessible over any Internet connection - Both StarOffice 5.1 and the StarPortal are free. Both approaches have attractions. The cost of switching from a traditional Windows infrastructure to Windows Terminal Server can be tiny, as administration is centralised and there is no need to retrain staff. The Sun approach ensures that users can work either connected or disconnected, without having to develop skills for two different application suites. - For further Comdex coverage, see pages 52-53 COMDEX SOUNDBITE THE SHOW 'We have no huge announcements to make ... like we're changing our logo or anything.' Sun Microsystems chief executive Scott McNealy, on Hewlett-Packard president Carly Fiorina's keynote 'I'm not really into this PC thing. Comdex should not exist.' Scott McNealy again 'We have the power in our hands now to make the first industrial revolution look small.' John Chambers, Cisco president and chief executive.
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