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Make way for the 'browserless Web'

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Say goodbye to the Web browser . . . at least for business-to-business commerce.

Sure, the browser has been the very embodiment of the Web - a standardized way to let people view information formatted in HTML. But over the past 18 months companies have started creating ways to let Web applications interact automatically, either reducing or eliminating the need for a human working with a browser.

The goal is to let one company's business processes, such as purchasing, interact directly with those of another, such as ordering. In other words, the "browserless Web" is on its way.

"At the moment, the Web is designed for human consumption," says Simon Phipps, chief software evangelist for Sun. "But the direction is toward being able to allow business processes to connect across the Web."

Automating interactions is needed because of the soaring volume of Web transactions, according to Melody Huang, chief architect with Keane, an IT services company in Boston. In large-scale, business-to-business interactions, "time is of the essence," she says. "You can't afford to have a clerk re-enter the data through a Web browser."

"I've seen figures that say 60% of the time, the guy on the phone taking your order gets it wrong," says Dan Connolly, XML activity lead with the World Wide Web Consortium, where he's working on the semantic Web - standards for facilitating computer-to-computer interactions. "Computers never get the order wrong," he says.

Exchanging information via documents formatted in XML is a fundamental part of the browserless Web. The potential impact can be seen in early form in e-commerce coalitions such as RosettaNet, which unites sellers and buyers of electronic components. A new report from Zona Research, "The Dash for Dot.com Interoperability," cites several RosettaNet examples. Arrow Electronics, for instance, says it reduced turnaround time to customers from "next day" to "same day." Lucent claims that disseminating technical information via XML has cut component selection time in half.

"We've had browsers on the brain," says Marc Andreessen, who as co-founder of Netscape helped create that fixation.

"There's no reason why most of the Internet traffic within five years can't be computers talking to computers," says Andreessen, now chairman of Loudcloud, an Internet service company.

Sun's Phipps says such interactions will eventually take place via a "company API" - a programming interface that can be queried over the Internet by programs at other Web sites. The interface lays bare applications, data and components with which these remote programs can interact.

Phipps and Andreessen say many basic components are in place to start building and using such company APIs. XML is the basis for describing and sharing data, and application logic can be written as Java or ActiveX components. Regardless of the object model used by these components, they can be called over the Web via Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP). An alternative mechanism, called ebXML, is being positioned for complex transactions. An emerging standard called Universal Description, Discover and Integration - akin to a Web directory service - will let applications identify other Web-based services they need and then connect with them.

An early example of a company interface is the eBay API, unveiled last November by the popular online auction service. Using the API tool kit, libraries and sample code, third-party developers can build applications that make use of eBay auction services, live data and other eBay services. These applications can be used by someone with a Web browser or by another application. In either case, the eBay services are embedded in the third-party application.

New to the Web, automatic business-to-business interchange has been a reality for years in many big corporations through electronic data interchange standards. But users and analysts agree that EDI is hugely expensive to deploy and maintain.

"You can't change an EDI rule or process without changing the application and everything the application touches," says Zona analyst Martin Marshall. "With XML [and other Web standards], you can make a business rule change without rewriting the application."

That's part of the reason Transentric, a Union Pacific subsidiary in St. Louis that acts as an EDI gateway for more than 8,000 companies, is embracing XML. "The browserless Web will be the core of what we do next," says Fred Domke, Transentric's CTO.

The company is adding XML translation capabilities to its EDI gateway via XMLSolutions' XML server product.

"Internet technologies give us the ability to add more trading partners, and make it easier to handle integration," Domke says. "You as a customer don't need to make a direct SNA connection with our host. Instead, you can use HTTP and SOAP to send us a message [and interact with our services]."

Andreessen sounds almost cavalier in his view of companies' capacity to move forward quickly with the browserless Web. "Put up a gateway server, let it take simple XML-based forms, and go for it," he says. "The nice thing about the consumer Web [based on the Web browser] is that it solved a lot of the problems we experienced at first with scaling and security. It's completely simple now to see how to do this [more advanced browserless Web]."

But a gateway that accepts simple XML-based forms is a far cry from anything like a "company API," says Ron Shelby, former CIO of General Motors' e-GM e-commerce arm and now CEO of XMLSolutions.

"Most large companies don't have a handle on their own semantic definitions of data in their applications," he says. "Until they do, they'll find it hard to have, for example, an automated online catalog with other companies."

Shelby says the first step is for companies to clean up their internal data, create consistent terms and eliminate redundancies in data and applications. Next, start to forge a common XML, or in the future an ebXML, vocabulary for information exchange with key trading partners, focusing first on the most critical data.

QVC, of Westchester, Pa., best known for direct marketing goods via TV, has begun this process. Last year, about $107 million of its $2.8 billion in annual sales came from customers buying on the Web at QVC.com. Steve Hanlon, a vice president at the company's Web division, iQVC, says QVC works with more than 200 vendors that fulfill orders for items and even food sold to customers via television and the Web.

Frustrated with EDI's shortcomings, QVC last fall began using a Web-based supply-chain application hosted by CommerceHub. More than 100 vendors are now plugged into it. "I have required a lot of our distributors to do it if they wanted to continue to do business with us," Hanlon says.

Instead of laboriously converting data to and from EDI formats, QVC transmits orders from its back-end accounting systems over the Internet to CommerceHub, which tracks the status of orders, alerts QVC if a vendor doesn't pick up an order in a certain amount of time, and makes sure the vendor supplies the needed tracking numbers and other confirmation information.

Industry participants agree that it's still a big job to sort out a consistent data framework within companies. But the key Web technologies are simple enough to begin the work of creating the browserless Web.

Senior Editor Ellen Messmer contributed to this story.

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