The Price of Progress: Affordable E-Commerce

Netscape’s electronic commerce exchange software provides a transparent infrastructure to streamline supply chain networks.

One of the truly great aspects of technology is that the more efficient it becomes, the more affordable it becomes. Remember when you couldn’t touch a PC for less than $5,000? Combine prolific use with economy pricing and PCs are in almost every kindergarten classroom and on every administrative desktop. Fortunately, progress is having a similar impact on information technology.

ECXpert, introduced by Netscape Communications Corporation, Mountain View, Calif., is electronic commerce exchange software that provides a transparent infrastructure to streamline supply chain networks. Enabling transactions over the Internet and EDI networks, ECXpert facilitates exchanges among partners by translating and mapping inbound messages into existing legacy systems. ECXpert also provides an audit trail of all transactions, a critical component for effective cross-company supply chain integration.

“This software evolved because companies need an opportunity to extend their existing networks or EDI practices and expand their investments via the Internet,” explains Lea Lucente, group product marketing manager for commerce exchange at Netscape.

“Companies didn’t want to eliminate existing VANs but they also wanted to reach their smaller customers that didn’t have VANS.” TNT Logistics North America, Toronto, Canada, uses ECXpert as a gateway to funnel information from suppliers and carriers across the customized supply chain solutions they design and implement for global customers such as Toyota, Nestle, and General Electric.

Utilizing ECXpert, TNT provides a communications foundation for Ford Motor Company’s North American parts distribution to link suppliers, warehouses and carriers with real-time tracking and interactive transactions – a significant accomplishment given the varying degrees of sophistication, from simple fax lines to basic internet e-mails, that had to be integrated.

“ECXpert provides a robust foundation that is critical to logistics,” says Ronald J. Sloan, vice president of information systems and technology at TNT. Sloan, an information technology specialist has spent 30 years helping businesses restructure and redefine their processes using technology.

“Logistics is about time and space,” he says. “Communication can eliminate the delays caused by either time or space. We’ve compressed the time telescope to hourly expectations that can only be met with a foundation built on electronic linking.”

Another Netscape proponent, BridgePoint Inc., Cary, N.C., the business unit of CSX Corporation, Richmond, Va., processes more than 100,000 transactions daily and relies on ECXpert as the electronic commerce conduit to capture line item information and tracking milestones.

Typically a manufacturing customer won’t know a specific bill of lading or route number, but they need to monitor inbound parts. Utilizing BridgePoint, end users can locate the parts on the supply chain and identify whether they have left the supplier; are delayed in customs; or are enroute for delivery with an estimated time of arrival. ECXpert is the electronic commerce component of BridgePoint’s offering.

“Our primary business is to provide transport buyers with in-transit visibility on any mode or any carrier for domestic and international shipments. ECXpert extends visibility beyond the four walls, down to inventory on the shelf if a customer so desires,” says Stephanie Miles, general manager at BridgePoint. “This is more than just locating a box; it brings us closer to the concept of managing virtual inventories to reduce safety stock levels and to capitalize on the collaboration of the extended enterprise.”

For Telefonica, a $15-billion company and one of the top five telecommunications service providers in the world, ECXpert provides the backbone of its Internet commerce application that targets small businesses. Traditionally deterred from electronic commerce by the construction and maintenance costs, small businesses have embraced Telefonica’s InfoEDI, which gives them online trading capabilities comparable to those of large corporations. Trading partners using InfoEDI send orders, issue invoices, and track documents without paper or interaction with additional parties. Telefonica’s pilot program involving 70 companies was so successful that it anticipates a customer base of 2,000 partners by the end of 1999.

“As we continue to evolve from a non-interactive business culture to transactive and interactive processes, we’ll see a pervasive use of programs such as ECXpert,” affirms Jim Adkins, director of the commerce exchange division at Netscape. “Today, the beauty of ECXpert is that our customers can empower their partners to practice electronic commerce without the customer’s customer or partner having to make any investment. Tomorrow, with enabling technologies such as XML, ECXpert customers will be able to realize even greater efficiencies.”

Because data is exchanged through a simple browser interface, the plant manager at a Ford factory or the collections department in a small European firm won’t even know they are using ECXpert or conducting business on an EDI platform.

“The functionality of ECXpert is purely internal to our organization; our customers just know it’s easier to do business,” reports Michael Harrell, director of operations at BridgePoint. “Judging from previous software installations, this was very easy to plug into our existing custom-built architecture.”

Pricing begins at $75,000 for a two-CPU computer system, and Sloan predicts that TNT will see a payback on its investment in less than one year.

“One of the reasons we selected Netscape was because it links to existing applications and legacy systems so money spent on internal processes isn’t lost,” says Sloan. “Also, Netscape has a suite of tools we can grow into. It’s a major player, which is very important in electronic commerce where you’re allowed less margin for errors. The whole world is watching if you make a mistake, so partnerships are critical.”

ECXpert collects aggregate information from disparate systems to provide line-item visibility for supply chain control, business measurements, and cycle time reporting. Flexible and forward thinking are adjectives users apply to ECXpert. The open standards approach lends itself to future potential and expanded applications.

“We’ve received excellent comments on the robust nature and depth of our APIs,” says Adkins. ECXpert has the capacity to map to any form: Excel spreadsheets, e-mail, or EDI.

“One of the exciting aspects is that we have shifted our technological focus from building internal solutions to buying tools such as ECXpert,” concludes Miles. “It’s not our core competency to design software for electronic commerce; we want to utilize Netscape’s expertise so we evolve with them and don’t have to take resources from our business development. Netscape is leading us into the next decade of electronic commerce.”