-TR Anand, GM, IBM Global Services India.

Today e-business and IBM
are synonymous and, therefore, it is hardly surprising for the company to participate in
technical user groups around the world and contribute to the discussions which shape the
future of emerging standards. Here, DATAQUEST makes an attempt to understand what is
happening in the world of standards and where is it at this point in time. Speaking to
DATAQUEST is TR Anand, GM, IBM Global Services, India. Responsible for Cross Industry and
E-business solutions, he leads the team responsible for identifying and bringing to market
the solutions covering e-business (intranet/extranet solutions, ecommerce, security and
e-business advisory services), business intelligence and customer relationship solutions.

Acronyms are popping all around ecommerce. For instance, we have OBI, Open EDI, Web
EDI, SET, SSL and half a dozen others. Are they standards? If yes, what are the
implication of having so many standards?
First, of the acronyms mentioned only SET and SSL are standards. The rest are
technologies. We have to distinguish between standards and technologies. SET stands for
Secure Electronic Transaction and is for credit card transactions over the net whereas SSL
is short for Secure Socket Layer and is basically a transport layer over which you can run
any application. As for Web EDI, it is just a fancy name for web-enabled EDI. For any
standard to become a standard, it must be open-both machine and vendor independent. It
must be decentralized or distributed, meaning it should allow information to flow from
anywhere to anywhere.

If there is any concern, it is for the fact that there is more than one standard for the
same thing-for instance, Millicent, Mondex and Digicash are all standards which can be
used for micro-payments on the net. It is not surprising that none of these have taken off
so far. Having more than one standard is really a hindrance to the growth of ecommerce.
The participating members will put off transacting over the web till they feel confident
that the other party will also adopt the same standard. The very essence of the internet
is that any computer can talk to any computer, irrespective of who manufactured it or
maintains it. Unless standards adopted for ecommerce are in the same spirit, it will
continue to be an issue.

How different are these
standards from one another? Are there any specific advantage in adopting one standard over
the other?
The standards mentioned above are all essentially meant to do different things. Hence,
comparing them would be pretty much like comparing apples to oranges. As a broad
statement, one can say that in the history of the internet, the only standards that have
survived are those that are open-meaning that the specifications are available and anyone
can implement them. If TCP/IP has emerged as the de facto standard for the internet, it is
because of its openness and simplicity. Basically, standards are built through user
groups. Hence one ought to go for a standard that is RFC (request for comment) compliant
or where complete specifications are available. RFCs are put out by the user groups. And
of course, standards must be scalable.

Do you reckon that we might soon
see a day when these multiple standards will converge and become one in order to
facilitate faster ecommerce activity?
For sure, a single standard will eventually emerge but it would not be due to
convergence of various approaches, since converging of multiple standards is a technical
nightmare. Hence, it is not a workable proposition, more so in a distributed environment
prevalent on the web. It might make more sense to start off with a clean slate to arrive
at a compromise and agreement on a new standard which accommodates contributions coming
from various vendors.

Alternately, the most popular (that which manages to survive), and if it gets adapted it
will become a standard. That is one way. The other is when dominant players pick up and
adapt a standard. Standards also happen when users start using a particular standard in a
big way because it is open, freely available and can built easily on it. Today, when it
comes to secure transactions over the internet, people will usually go the SET way. At the
same time, many companies today have adopted SSL. However, in SSL, banks are likely to
charge high transaction fees as it carries a higher risk for them as acquirers. What is to
be understood is that SSL is not a substitute for SET.

I would bet on the survival of open and decentralized standards that are not owned by any
corporation or conglomeration but by groups like OMG (Object Management Group).

Will it be the market forces
that will play the role of the arbitrator in making this happen?

Not completely. While market forces do determine the stabilization in most places, on the
internet it might not be the case, since quite often, the average net user does not know
and could not care less to know what the net can do for him technically. Conventionally,
business is done by surveying the customer first, finding out the requirements and then
providing it. On the net, things work differently. One proposes a standard/service largely
based on a very educated guess based on their experience (bad or good) and let the market
(usage) decide whether the standard/service will be adopted. Ultimately, the customer will
decide, but in this case the customer will not "ask" for it, since the customer,
more often than not, does not know what he or she can get. Customers know what they want
from a business point of view. Whoever offers those kinds of services is likely to
succeed. So the choice is, in effect, one of elimination.

Also, customers today are looking for best practices, that is, robust business rules which
the solution/software vendor is expected to being to the end customer. It might be prudent
to closely watch organizations like IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) and their
discussion groups comprising technology people from various participating ORG
organizations. Though discussions are by technical people they are, all the same, in
direct interaction with customers and hence have a good grasp of which way things ought to
move. Finally, both market forces and regulatory board will play a major role.

Can you draw a direct
correlation between standards and growth of ecommerce activity?

The sooner we have standards the faster we will see the maturing of the net marketplace.
Having said this, standards are one among many others that will drive the market for
ecommerce. For instance, policies. Singapore enacted the prevalent laws only in mid ’98.
Digital signatures have to be provided legal status; you need free convertibility of
currency in order to buy and sell across the net; backing of industry giants who will
adopt and implement it. For instance, without backing of Visa, MasterCard and others, SET
would never have taken off.

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