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Lan Times Online, 11/24/97

E-COMMERCE Web agents will give users some leverage

By Walid Mougayar

When looking for products or services on the Internet, why must we repeat the same request for information at various World Wide Web sites?

Search engines return information about Web sites, not products. And, as currently structured, most Web sites do not let you compare competing products without visiting other Web sites.

This unsatisfactory state of Internet comparative shopping is a result of what is known as the Web-centric model. Fortunately, today's Web-centric world is about to begin evolving toward a user-centric model.

In a Web-centric model, sellers are in control. Their goal is to generate traffic at their own Web site. They don't want you to compare products available elsewhere; you must purposefully go to another site.

In a user-centric model, customers are in control. Through the Internet those customers may seek out and choose sellers on their own. Instead of forcing buyers to visit their individual Web sites, sellers are forced to respond to their requests.

The reason for this turnabout is commerce based on agents: software programs that assist people in finding or filtering information. They will change the way we find and buy services on the Internet.

Agent-based technologies will play a key role in letting us transition from today's tedious searching to automated, efficient ways of finding information and acting on it. More and more, agents are contributing to making Web sites "invisible," as they shield users from a direct Web-browsing experience.

These new agent technologies are fueling the emergence of interactive bid-and-ask businesses, which will be a pillar of functionality for the user-centric model.

Instead of entering many sites and gathering information about each one, customers will bid only once, and many sites can respond to the bid. In the spirit of Sun Microsystems Inc. Java's "write once, run many" portability, interactive bidding will support "bid once, receive many" offers.

When agent technologies come into widespread use, perhaps as early as next year, IS departments that support electronic commerce may give their companies a competitive edge by knowing how to apply them. Three classes of agent-based software tools are now available for enhancing your current applications and building new ones.

Automated pull or parallel pull agents focus on helping users find precise information, based on ad hoc or predefined needs. Often, the interface is a Web browser.

Web automation treats the Web as an inventory of applications and automates the process of integrating a software application with the Web for a specific purpose that will be replicated later. The aggregate application is built with Web automation tools.

Interactive, personalized catalog agents integrate heterogeneous sources of information from different information catalogs and present a real-time, personalized view of a new marketplace to users.

Most of these agent technologies will rely on eXtensible Markup Language (XML), a new standard under the auspices of the World Wide Web Consortium for Web data and document types, which will unleash an unparalleled level of interoperation among Web sites. New agents will rely on XML formats to "read" Web sites' commercial information and return accurate, comprehensible query results to their initiators, whether individuals or other Web sites. Widespread adoption of XML will begin early next year, so it's best to get ready for it now.

Here are some action items from an IS perspective. First, get a lead on the competition by investigating agent technologies. Second, make your site user-centric by giving more control and choices to users. Third, make your Web site agent-friendly by populating your key data with XML conventions. Finally, organize a bid-and-ask function to keep your customers dynamically connected. There is much to be gained by allowing agents to fetch what you are selling and present it to potential buyers.

Walid Mougayar is a Toronto-based management consultant on Internet commerce business strategies and the author of Opening Digital Markets. Contact him at walid@cyberm.com.

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