Turnkey e-commerce software

Turnkey e-commerce software<@VM>One of these 14 packages can put your Web site in business

Commercial products let you go to the Web inexpensively and with little development expertise

By Edmund X. DeJesus

Special to GCN

With apologies to Calvin Coolidge, the business of America these days is e-business. And that goes for government too.

In the age of the Internet and electronic commerce, government agencies neither can nor want to continue doing things as they always have. For a surprisingly wide variety of government services, going online is proving to be the way to go. The trick is to accomplish this as simply and inexpensively as possible.

Agencies face two nearly contradictory mandates.

The first is to improve services to the public; people want and deserve easy access to government services and materials. This is not easy to achieve'you can't have a fully staffed and supplied office on every block.

The second is to simplify government agencies, reduce bureaucracies and save taxpayers' money. This is no easier to accomplish, especially if you're working to provide superior access at the same time.

Web attack

So, many government agencies are turning to Web-based solutions to kill two mandated birds with one technology stone. With an online service in place, you immediately open a door for the millions of Americans with Internet access. On agency sites, you can provide information, materials and services that citizens are looking for, as well as links to related or useful sites.

Moreover, you need not build more offices or hire more staff. Creating and maintaining an e-commerce Web site can be done in-house, with existing personnel and resources.

How? The prospect of yet another development project might reduce some managers to tears and could deter them from pursuing an e-commerce plan. But so-called turnkey e-commerce promises to simplify and speed the creation of agency Web sites while keeping costs low. The e-commerce software available also satisfies another mandate that government agencies struggle with: buying solutions off the shelf.

A turnkey e-commerce system typically consists of several components:

' A simple development environment that lets non-experts design Web pages

' The means to add, remove or modify items that will appear on the e-commerce site

' Ways to handle customer transactions

' Methods to move the developed site elements from a local machine to a Web server

' Routines to maintain and manage the completed site.

Different products implement these features in different ways, and each offers special features that could affect your decision on which to buy.

The first step in choosing the right e-commerce package is to establish what your agency wants to use it for, now and in the future, and to see if you can find a match in the available software.

The basic capabilities of such packages include:

' Selling information, materials or services

' Payment of fees and fines

' Application for or renewal of licenses

' Signing up for training courses

' Disposal of surplus equipment

' Providing on-site information

' Taking orders for free off-site material.

In addition, some packages allow agencies to purchase goods and services over the Web.

But the Byzantine intricacies of the typical agency procurement process are usually beyond the reach of the kinds of turnkey systems in this guide.

Your agency may be interested in some or all of these turnkey capabilities, but it's important also to think about the future. What areas can you imagine moving into within the next few years? It is important to choose a solution that is not going to limit your plans.

The next essential step is to realistically assess the level of expertise necessary to use the software. Remember that there are three distinct types of activities that you need to consider: creating the site; adding, removing and changing items on the site; and maintaining the site.

Creating the site is obviously a one-time activity'if you're lucky. If actually creating the site is beyond the abilities of your staff, you might want to consider using a consultant for the short time necessary to get a heartbeat.

But maintaining the site is an ongoing activity, so you want to make sure it is within your scope. This can be difficult to judge. One suggestion is to examine the product documentation that describes these procedures; if they seem beyond your staff, that's a red flag.

Another suggestion is to see if the vendor has a demo site available. Some vendors do, precisely so prospective customers can take a site for a spin before buying. The demo site should include most of the tasks you'll be doing regularly.

Finally, ask to speak with other customers and find out from them how easy the product was to use.

Security is a major concern on several fronts. It's never pleasant for any site to get hacked, and it is especially embarrassing if it happens to a government agency. And an e-commerce site has to consider the privacy and the financial safety of its users.

You want to carefully research the security features of any e-commerce package. How does it safeguard the site itself? How does it protect visitors? What kind of encryption, authentication and other security technologies does it employ? How are passwords handled? Contacting current users can again be valuable, to find out if they have had any problems with security.

Been around long?

The longevity and stability of a company are important considerations. Your agency is, presumably, going to be around for a while. You want the vendor to be around, too. This is one case where big companies have an advantage over their competitors. You know IBM Corp. is going to be around in 10 years; you might not be so sure about Joe's House of E-Commerce.

Finally, you need to ensure that your
e-commerce plan fits in with your existing technology. You don't want to buy a Unix
e-commerce system if your whole office is running Microsoft Windows. More subtly, you need to be sure, for instance, that reports you get from the e-commerce system arrive in a useable format. You don't want to add layers of format translation to your interaction with the Web site.

One of the first challenges for an agency venturing into e-commerce is achieving merchant status. For starters, you must accept credit cards. The software itself probably will handle the mechanics of the transactions, but the agency needs to supply identification numbers and meet other requirements.

The Internet service provider that hosts your Web site might have a program to simplify matters for you, or you can turn to a third party. But it is essential that you be able to display those little MasterCard and Visa symbols on your site if it is to be at all successful in reaching the public.

Come one, come all

You should look into accepting as many payment options as possible. Commercial sites work at making it easy for customers to pay them; so should you. Credit card and money order acceptance is the absolute minimum. Take a look at any successful commercial site to see what else you should consider.

Security again comes into play here. The Internet is a tough neighborhood, with potential miscreants constantly rattling your back doorknob to see if it's locked. You should be aware of all the security procedures and capabilities of the provider hosting your site.

You also should know all of the possible security measures your chosen software package provides. It is vital to follow these procedures to the letter and to implement every security feature offered.

Taking all the available security steps could constrain your agency a little. For example, there may be only one or two people with genuine access to all the behind-the-scenes controls of the site.

Stay the e-course

But do not trade your security for ease of use. Sloppiness, such as never changing the default password or using your agency's initials as an encryption code, will not stand up against the onslaught of dedicated and clever hackers. Don't give them an inch.

Most of the turnkey systems in this guide are rather simple-minded. They're built to do one thing: sell something'a book, a CD, a pair of shoes'over the Web. To make the best use of the system, you need to present as a product everything you offer on your e-commerce site.

' Think simple: Make your site easy for a visitor to use and simple for your agency to set up and maintain.

' Think products: Consider all agency materials, services, information, training and other offerings as products.
' Think payment: Make it easy for visitors to pay you by credit card and other methods.

' Think long-term: Plan for what you may do in the future, and look for vendors who will survive.

' Think links: Establish links to other relevant government sites and sources of information.

In this view of things, an application fee becomes a product with a targeted audience. So does a fine'with a more literally targeted audience. A course is a product with a limited and defined quantity. Free items also are products; they just have a price of $0.

Once you have a site, put some effort into marketing it. Will a person using a Web search engine find your site? Make use of Hypertext Markup Language keywords in your site's header section. Submit your site to all the major search engines. Make it easy for your audience to find you.

Don't forget to include links to anything relevant on your site. Just because you're set up for e-commerce doesn't mean that's all a visitor should find there. Your e-commerce site can be a gateway to your agency or the larger entity your agency or bureau is part of. It can serve as the single point of contact where frequent users can find everything they need.

Don't be surprised if your e-commerce site makes an impact on how things are done at your agency.

An organization that is used to responding to requests in a leisurely four to six weeks might be surprised by a constituency that is used to millisecond responses. A bustling Web site may be the kick in the pants necessary to streamline procedures and redesign workflow.

What if it's a success? Strangely, this may be one of the most difficult outcomes to deal with. If you're expecting a few dozen hits a day and find yourself fielding several thousand, you're going to have to revise your plans.'This may mean scaling up your software, your Internet service provider or some other factor to handle your new popularity.

But those are the fun problems of e-commerce to solve.

Edmund X. DeJesus of Norwood, Mass., writes about information technology.

VendorProductTypeOperating system or platform supportFeaturesPrice
Baan Co.
Reston, Va.
Baan E-EnterpriseSuite of Internet commerce productsWin95, NT, Unix, HP 9000, Digital AlphaIncludes e-sales, e-collaboration and e-procurement components$25,000 per server for 25 users
IBM Corp.
Armonk, N.Y.
Net.Commerce 2.0E-commerceNT Server, IBM RS/6000, AIX, OS/390, SolarisHandles multiple prices per product, interface to taxation and shipping charge calculation systems $4,995
INEX Corp.
Oklahoma City
INEX Commerce Court LiteE-commerceWin9x, NTOffers high-quality, searchable catalog and automatic order retrieval$595
Intelisys Electronic
Commerce LLC
New York
Intelisys Connect TradeBusiness-to-business purchasing system NTHandles create and send requisition requests, create and maintain catalogs, automatic order transfers $100 to $150 per user
InterWorld Corp.
New York
InterWorld Commerce Exchange 3.0Business-to-business and business-to- consumer sales NT, Digital Alpha, SolarisDesigned for product fulfillment and distribution, remote management $65,000
Microsoft Corp.
Redmond, Wash.
Microsoft Site Server Commerce Edition 3.0E-commerceNTIncludes Site Building wizard, Commerce Server software developer's kit$5,990 for unlimited access
NetResults Corp.
Palo Alto, Calif.
ProShop/B 3.0Business-to-business e-commerceNTCreates online stores tailored to each corporate customer$70,000
Netscape Communications Corp.
Mountain View, Calif.
Actra MerchantXpertBusiness-to-consumer sales and store managementNT, SolarisHandles multiple catalogs and storefronts; unlimited product categories$100,000 per CPU
Netscape SellerXpert 2.0Business-to-business selling SolarisHandles flexible payment options$125,000 per CPU
Open Market Inc.
Burlington, Mass.
LiveCommerceCatalog buildingNTHandles customer-specific catalogs, parametric searching$45,000
TransactE-commerceSunOS, Solaris, HP-UX, IrixIncludes online transaction records, order reports and transaction activity audit trail$125,000
ShopSite 4.1Online storesNT, Solaris, Irix, Linux, BSD/OSOffers sales and traffic statistics, secure encrypted transactions, online order fulfillment$1,295
Oracle Corp.
Redwood City, Calif.
Oracle iStoreE-commerceHP-UX, Solaris, Tru64 UnixOffers scalability, security, personalization$150 times CPU size, and up
Webvision Inc.
Torrance, Calif.
WEBtropolis OrderNet 2.0Virtual storeNT, Solaris, AIX, HP-UXIncludes customer tracking, newsletter mailings, multiple payment options $5,995

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