Just mentioning electronic commerce is enough to raise a cynical laugh in most IT circles. Even in an industry famed for its vapourware, there has rarely been such an outstanding example of all mouth and no trousers.
However, recent developments in this area suggest it won't be long before the ethernet is buzzing with surfers in a buying frenzy.
In mid-October Oracle announced its Apollo project, a range of products to help companies receive online orders and handle Internet payments.
Then, in November, Microsoft came out with a beta of its Merchant Server 1.0, expected to ship in final form by the end of the year.
Not unusually for Microsoft, the technology behind the product comes largely from acquisition, rather than in-house: in June, Microsoft bought eShop, a small company that made Internet 'shopfronts', Web sites for electronic commerce. Another key element of the product comes from Microsoft's partnership with Verifone, which makes terminals to process credit-card transactions. Verifone's vPOS payment-processing software has been incorporated into Merchant Server.
In addition, leading Internet service provider UUNet has announced it will host Web services for users of Microsoft Merchant Server.
Crucially, Bill Gates has also managed to get some key banks and financial institutions on board. Present at the product's launch were American Express, Bank of America and the Royal Bank of Canada, among others. In the past, Gates has alienated such companies by trying to dominate them. At one point it even seemed Microsoft was thinking about competing with the banks by setting up its own financial services venture on the Net.
Another sign of Microsoft's rapprochement with the banks is in the UK, where Barclays has just chosen Microsoft Money as the front-end for its Internet banking effort, the PC Banking Service, due to pilot in the Spring.
Previously, Barclays rejected Money as 'too complicated'.
According to Mike McManus, Barclays' manager of current and savings accounts, 'Microsoft has moved from trying to take on the banks to a more collaborative approach'.
Users of the Barclays PC Banking Service will have the facility to download up-to-date transaction details, analyse and display their account history, pay bills, transfer money between accounts and set up and change standing orders.
Microsoft already has similar agreements with 35 banks in the US, and is working with other European finance houses interested in using Money.
The company is currently developing a project with Midland Bank, further extending Money's position in the UK market.
Meanwhile, Natwest is working with Netscape to try out its own Internet banking service; TSB already has an online service through Compuserve; and, in February, Lloyds began a pilot with Psion to provide a hand-held 'Electronic Cheque Book'.
There could be even more news in the offing. Strong rumours have been circulating that American Express will buy Intuit, the leader in home-accounting software which Microsoft wanted to buy last year. Both American Express and Intuit refused to comment, but that didn't stop Intuit's shares rising 23 per cent when the rumours reached the stock market.
Although we shouldn't hold our breath in the expectation of electronic commerce becoming an everyday activity in the next few months, every company needs to prepare for it. Those who now dismiss the idea as hot air may be left on the ground when the balloon goes up.
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