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Auto parts distributor bets on XML for e-comm

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Conventional wisdom says you have to use the World Wide Web to practice e-commerce with your trading partners.

But Worldpac, an auto parts importer and distributor, thinks HTML, the authoring software of the Web, is a dead end. This is because the data format is too rigid and Web browsing is too slow, says Mike Hellweg, vice president of IT at the Worldwide Parts and Accessories Corp.

According to Hellweg, the better option is deploying applications based on Extensible Markup Language (XML), allowing for an easier way to exchange documents and images for online searches and content management.

XML can become "our real-time Electronic Data Interchange" because the developing markup standard allows business data from one application to be transferred directly to where it should be added to another, he says. And Worldpac wants to have its customers - primarily garage-shop mechanics - not only purchasing parts from electronic catalogs, but also downloading business data directly into their own desktop applications using XML.

Hellweg isn't afraid to put his money where his mouth is, and has budgeted up to a half million dollars to get Worldpac's trading partners going with XML. Worldpac, which each year sells $150 million worth of auto parts to repair shops, is building its entire e-commerce effort around a 100% XML-based server instead of a Web server.

Worldpac is going to distribute XML client software from ThinLink Solutions to its repair-shop customers rather than asking them to use Web browsers. Worldpac expects to be using ThinLink's XML server, now under development, within a few months.

"Browsers are just the terminals of the '80s," Hellweg notes with some scorn. "Web sites are really designed for just surfing, not for dedicated use of a business-to-business application."

With the XML server, Hellweg says he'll have a much faster, more powerful way for his customers to order parts than they do today.

Now, Worldpac uses a ThinLink application server and an AS/400 server running a combination of inventory and customer information enterprise resource planning software from Intelligent Business System. People accessing the ThinLink application server via the Internet see the Worldpac electronic catalog of auto parts. This can be quickly searched with a custom-made TCP/ IP-based Windows client that Worldpac gave to mechanics to use from their desktops. Users can place orders or download pricing information.

While the custom Windows client has delivered the speed and ease of online ordering Worldpac wanted, Hellweg sees even bigger gains in using XML.

Mechanics still spend a lot of time taking the pricing data they download from Worldpac and typing it into desktop applications from vendors, such as WinWorks Software and Snap-On Tools Co., to create repair estimates, he says. With XML, Worldpac thinks pricing data can be downloaded directly into these software applications.

"We'll have the ability to integrate our client application with the other applications on our customers' desktops," Hellweg says.

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