Govt. buyers, vendors eye EDI links via Net, bypassing VANs

NEW YORK--Electronic commerce in the government now relies on
value-added network (VAN) providers to deliver solicitations and execute purchases,
largely because of systems incompatibility between buyers and sellers.


But on the horizon are EC products that would bypass the VANs and let government buyers
interact directly and securely with suppliers over the World Wide Web.


Last month's Internet & Electronic Commerce conference here gave glimpses into the
future of the Web browser as EC tool.


Equipped with such a browser, an agency contracting officer or buyer would have a
window on the competitive marketplace and could shop around instantly for the best deals.
An EC-capable, agency Web server would be the drop-off point for vendors' bids and 3-D
images of their products.


At the conference, Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates demonstrated an alpha version of
an EC browser, so far unnamed, that uses the company's ActiveX controls and Object Linking
and Embedding components, plus Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java and Macromedia Inc.'s
Shockwave, to shuttle EC transactions between a Web server and standard office
applications.


Gates said the EC browser will be integrated into future releases of Windows 95 and
Windows NT operating systems.


Depending on how vendors' ordering sites were configured, a CO might view graphical
catalogs of items with individually manipulable images. A video window embedded in the
browser itself would connect to multimedia information about any item, and clicking on a
button could link the browser to a live image of a support person for real-time answers to
questions.


To buy, the CO would send an encrypted transaction request through the browser,
charging the purchase to a federal credit card. An acknowledgement would be sent back
immediately.


Microsoft's EC browser has a file tree on the left side of the screen, similar to the
Windows 95 Explorer, to summarize everything available at a visited Web site. Folders can
be expanded to show groups of page pointers at the site, and clicking on one causes the
browser to jump to that page.


For this EC scenario to work, however, client and server must be configured with
Microsoft's proprietary ActiveX controls. In contrast, Netscape Communications Corp.'s
SuiteSpot suite [GCN, March 18, Page 6] uses more open standards. Netscape's
Catalog Server could do about the same things as the Microsoft scheme, although more
programming would be required.


Neither prices nor release dates have been set for the Microsoft EC browser and related
ActiveX components.


There are security problems to be worked out before the government can move into such
EC technologies, although current encryption techniques make it very time-consuming to
break or spoof a transaction.


Likewise, agencies' standard electronic data interchange transaction sets no longer
would apply in such a scenario.


About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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