Evaluating the new wireless web applications (2000)

Back in 2000, I got rid of using my laptop and made do with borrowed computers and the local Kinkos. Here is a column that I wrote about that experience and the latest wireless technologies that were available.

I am not completely without technology when I travel, however: for the past year or so I have been using a Sprint PCS phone with its wireless web capabilities. Lately this has become more useful with several new applications available on the phone coupled with an offer of six months’ free data usage by Sprint. (www.sprintpcs.com) Let’s see what you can do with your phone besides make voice calls.

I tested several services, all of which (with one exception) are freely available once you register. The trick with most of these services is to setup an account with one of the application providers on your existing Internet-connected PC, and then have your phone nearby so you can follow on your PC the instructions to setup what you need on the phone. It isn’t very simple, to be sure, and sometimes I had to go through the entire sequence of steps more than once.

Most of these services allow you to access your email from your phone – either your existing POP Internet mail server or a special email account that is associated with the service provider. Some had additional features, such as access to your appointment calendar or address book, both of which you would need to enter the data from your PC’s browser if you want to retain your sanity. And a few applications had some other nifty features that I’ll get to in a moment.

After you set up your application, you’ll want to make a bookmark on the phone’s menu system so you can easily bring it up. One of the things you quickly learn with these phones is that every keystroke is precious and time-consuming, so the fewer keys to get to your applications, the better. On my Denso Touchpoint phone, this is found under the Help menu option – not as obvious as I’d like. And some of the applications have so many menu branches that it will drive you nuts pressing the buttons and scrolling around on the tiny screens available on most phones. If this is an issue, you might consider that many of these service offerings are also available on Palm VIIs or Palms with wireless Internet connections, but I haven’t gotten around to trying these out.

This is just a small sampling of service offerings available. There are probably dozens more, and hundreds to come.

  • Infinite Technologies. This is still the one service I use the most, including their web-based email system when I am traveling and using a borrowed machine. It is just for downloading your existing email account. Since you work directly with your own POP server, you can delete messages from the phone directly, unlike some of the other services that just collect the email and leave copies. The phone-based screens aren’t too cluttered, and sometimes their service is down but the messages are maddening obscure. On Infinite’s web site are great instructions on how to setup the service.
  • Yodlee. This is a very extensive web-based service that can connect to hundreds of various web sites, including financial, news, and entertainment. The implementation on the phone is less satisfying, mainly because the tiny screens make it hard to scroll through more than miniscule collections of information. And while their email service is extensive, I had trouble reading one of my POP providers, in addition to reading folders in My Yahoo email. The setup instructions are very helpful, almost to the fault of being too detailed. I’m not sure I would want to trust Yodlee to automatically login to my bank accounts and other financial data, though.
  • Yahoo Mobile. My Yahoo is the one personalized portal that I use the most on the home PC: it contains a page that everyone in the family uses to check the weather, find directions, and lookup the latest movie times. Yahoo already comes as one of the menu choices for the Sprint PCS phones, but you’ll need to bookmark it if you want to do an autologin to your own personalized My Yahoo page and collect your Yahoo email. From the phone you can access most of My Yahoo’s services, such as stocks, sports scores, weather, and so forth. And like MSN Mobile, you can set up a number of alerts to notify you when your stock price drops or when the weather changes. There is a bug in the address book that prevents dialing of phone numbers from your entry on the first try.
  • Visto.com. Visto, like Yahoo and Yodlee, has the ability to collect external POP email and also to synchronize its email with your own desktop (something I didn’t test). It has the same address book bug like Yahoo that prevents dialing of phone numbers on the first try.
  • Mobile MSN. Microsoft has beefed up its MSN service and it now comes close to My Yahoo in terms of customized features and information displays. Of course, you’ll need a Hotmail account to use the email features, and while you are at you might as well sign up for Microsoft Passport too. You can setup customized notification services, such as for when your stock price changes or when you receive email, although they are not very simple to setup. Microsoft is working on better documentation
  • MyDocsOnlin e. MyDocsOnline is one of the first services to support web folders, meaning that you can browse a directory on the web of your files in the same fashion as you would browse the files on your own hard disk. You can set up this service to send files from a common web-based storage area to others via email, using commands on your phone. You first have to upload the files via your PC and once they are in your storage area you can’t view their contents via the phone. Still, for users who do lots of traveling and can’t take all their files with them, this could be handy.
  • eFax Wireless. The only fee-based service here, eFax has long been one of my favorite ways to receive faxes in my email account. Now you can use your phone as a fax router and direct your inbound faxes to a real fax machine to view them, perhaps while you are standing nearby for delivery of sensitive documents. Fax forwarding requires a paid account, while notification of faxes is accomplished on the free accounts.
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Applying Myers-Briggs to managing your networks

Many of you are familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality tests. The tests grew out of personality theories first formulated by psychoanalyst Carl Jung and are now used by human resources personnel to predict group behavior and team composition.But what if similar tests could be given networks, to figure out ahead of time how to match up the personality of the network with its network administrator? The more you think about this idea, the less far-out it seems. This is the genesis of an article I wrote for ServerWatch about applying Myers-Briggs for managing your networks.

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Project PortNet: Blueprint for Computers in Port Washington NY Schools

Nowadays, we generally accept having computers in the classroom. But back in 1995, it was a radical notion. I co-chaired a committee of parents, teachers, and administrators and we came up with this blueprint on how to do it. Several years later, I was elected to the board of trustees of the school district, and got even more involved in local politics.

Here is the copy of our report.

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Email Application Servers: Beyond One-to-One Messaging

I did a series of reports back in 1999 for various private clients on email technologies. This was done for Delano and talks about email app servers.

Email application servers will be the tie that binds this new breed of workers. The difference is now email applications are two-way, fully integrated into the corporate consciousness. Those workers who don’t know how to make use of email servers will waste hours or lose information. And those that are content to continue with one-to-one communications will fall behind their competitors.

Let’s review how email application servers are transcending one-to-one messaging. We’ll examine the role played by these new products, how you can harness the power of these servers and some of the issues involved in moving towards these more interesting and advanced uses.

 

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Internet Appliances

Dave Piscitello and Lisa Phifer run a boutique consulting firm called Core Competence. Back in the day, we took a very complete look at the various kinds of all-in-one access/firewall/server appliances that could be used to run a small business in a box.

Here is our report..

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Windows Sources: 3 eCommerce Suites Reviewed (1999)

The departed Windows Sources magazine from the original Ziff empire was a fun series of assignments. Here is a review that I wrote back in 1999 that looked at three leading eCommerce suites that were the cutting edge back then.

The first skill you’ll need to start your own web-based storefront has nothing to do with selling, marketing, or how to arrange an attractive online catalog of items. Instead, it is patience. While all of these skills are helpful, what you’ll really need is the ability to wait while you download lots of software to set up your web storefront. Why all the downloading? Mainly because there isn’t a single product that can do the job, and indeed finding the right set of tools will take some significant effort. To make matters more difficult, the price of tools covers anywhere from several hundreds of dollars to more than $20,000!

You’ll need a web server, of course, and you have your choice of several dozen on NT that support secure transactions. Then you’ll need to figure out how to connect your catalog, inventory and existing product information databases to whatever web server you end up using. You’ll also have to provide a way for shoppers to search for the items they want to purchase as they navigate your storefront. And you’ll need to implement a payment system to either accept credit cards over the Internet or else make use of one or more net-based payment schemes. Finally, you’ll need to administer these various pieces of software as your needs and catalog changes.

That is a lot of different pieces and products to manage. Fortunately, you can try out many of them for free, and download the required files and documentation directly from the Internet. However, these freebies have limits on their usage before you have to pay, usually 30 days. This means that before you implement any web commerce solution, you’ll want to identify all the various products you might need and get them to your hard disk. Once you install all of this software, the clock starts ticking.

Besides patience, you’ll need to be familiar with creating your own HTML documents and be able to manage and setup various databases. If you are still learning HTML or have no exposure to designing data structures, then opening your own web store will require learning these skills quickly.

While you might think that you should start by picking your web server, we recommend postponing this decision until the very end of the process. Instead, you should start by looking at database servers and their associated web-based tools. The core of any web storefront is how data is manipulated, stored, and updated. This data includes not only the items that you offer for sale but tracking inventory, orders, and customers. If you already have this information maintained in your own electronic database, then you should run your web storefront using this software. If not, then you should consider using Microsoft’s SQL Server, Informix or Oracle’s software, all of which run on NT. Why? These are the most common platforms for many web-based storefronts, and there is a wide selection of web-based tools that work with these servers. Pick SQL Server if you think you want to use any other Microsoft-based tools, such as Merchant or Microsoft’s web server. Pick Oracle if you can find someone who is steeped in Oracle’s plSQL language. Pick Informix if you don’t fit either of these situations.

Once you pick your database, you’ll next want to look at what tool to use to manipulate your data into web format. There are many different ways to go here, but all products fall into one of three categories: First are those such as Allaire’s Cold Fusion that add their own HTML-like markup commands to specific web pages, so that results from your queries can be built on the fly. These kinds of products are good for developing your own web-based forms, such as to search for a particular kind of product feature through your entire catalog. Second are products such as Bluestone’s Sapphire that are complete application development environments and allow for publishing parts of the database via the web. Use these if you already have developed your own client/server databases and need to webify them. Finally, there are products such as Oracle’s Web Server that extend the database procedural language itself. Depending on your own database expertise and what you are trying to accomplish, you may want to look at more than one type of product.

Now that you have your database decision, it is time to look one of the storefront software suites. Unlike office productivity suites, these suites are really more toolkits than pre-packaged software. There is still a great deal of integration, setup, and programming that you’ll need to accomplish before you can open your storefront. Not to mention price – while you might pay several hundred dollars for each single-function tool, the suites will cost several thousands of dollars – and in some cases several tens of thousands of dollars. Obviously, these products are for serious merchants.

The three leading candidates for NT-based servers are iCat’s Electronic Commerce Suite v 3.0, Microsoft Merchant v 1.0 and IBM’s Net.Commerce v 1.0. All three are shipping products. We should mention that Open Market, which has had one of the most expensive but also capable of merchant suites for Unix, should have a beta version on NT by the time you read this. There is a wide range in price among the three suites from a few thousand dollars to nearly $20,000. Setting up these three products is covered in our lab notes section, although we had to have lots of help from each vendor’s technical support teams to get our store running.

Overall, we liked the IBM product the best: it had the most coherent set of software, controls, and features, and came with both a fully-featured web server and database server as part of the package. However, both Microsoft and iCat have more third-party tools and support. We liked the shopping cart portion of iCat and the many different sample stores that came with Merchant. And we didn’t like the fact that Net.Commerce requires the IBM web and database servers to run – if it were more inclusive with other people’s products, it would be a hands-down winner.

Why would you want a suite? Several reasons: you need help in understanding how databases and web servers interact, and the suites are a good place to learn by example. Each suite comes with at least one sample storefront that you can modify and use as the basis of starting your own store. The suites also come with their own shopping-cart systems, making it easier for you to develop a way to track what a shopper chooses as she or he navigates through your web storefront.

Merchant comes with the VeriFone payment system as part of the package. This is helpful if you already have your own merchant bank account set up to accept credit card payments via non-Internet customers, such as those that call you or visit your physical store. Speaking of VeriFone, they sell a separate payment server that runs on NT for $2500 – this could be useful if you are concerned about security, don’t want to run Merchant software, or have existing non-NT based web storefronts.

Don’t buy a suite if you have lots of CGI and perl programming expertise, or plan on using a consultant who has these skills. The home-grown perl solution, such as for a shopping cart system that can be found at www.egrafx.com/minishop, can provide much of the same functionality at much the same cost. And you if already are using web/database products such as Cold Fusion or Sapphire, then you probably can duplicate much of the suite’s functions at much lower software cost.

If you don’t have the funds to buy a storefront suite and don’t have the programming skill to do it yourself, you might want to consider buying several single-function tools and seeing if you can knit them together into what you need. For example, you could use a shopping cart system from Mercantec, a search/index tool from Saqqara, and an accounting tool from Inex and still end up spending much less than the least expensive suite. Our table lists the various products that run on NT and which particular elements each supports.

At this point, your web server decision is easy. Pick the ones that are supported by your database and your suite of software tools. Keep in mind that you want a web server that supports at least one, and preferably both of the two common secure protocols: Secure HTTP, originally developed by Enterprise Integration Technologies and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), originally developed by Netscape. S-HTTP encrypts the web-based traffic between client and server on a page-by-web page basis. SSL encrypts more of the protocol stack and works on a connection-by-connection basis. Neither is bullet-proof against the most determined hacker, but shoppers like knowing that something is encrypted when they are about to type in their credit card number and send it over the Internet. Some servers, such as IBM’s Secure Internet Connection Server, support one or the other, while others, such as WebSite Pro, support both security systems.

The most common secure NT web servers are from Microsoft, Netscape, O’Reilly’s WebSite Pro, AOL’s NaviPress, and Oracle. There are plenty others to choose from, and you can view a long list at www.webcompare.com. Once you obtain your web server software, your final step will be to obtain a certificate from VeriSign at www.verisign.com. This company keeps track of who you say you are and is necessary for making use of a server that runs SSL. You’ll need to use the web server software (both IBM’s Server and WebSite Pro have excellent documentation on the steps required here) to create a certificate request. Then, you’ll need to print out this information and fax your request to VeriSign along with information on your company’s letterhead that indicates you have the right to use your corporate identity.

As you can see, e-commerce covers a wide range of software tools, from freebie utilities to multiple-thousand-dollar suites, and lots in-between. There is also a wide range of knowledge between assembling some plain HTML pages and being able to integrate database, web tools, and payment and catalog servers together to put up your web storefront.

 

[lab notes]

Lab notes MS Merchant

Microsoft Merchant is a complex product to install and setup, and digs deep into the underlying NT operating system. Before installing anything, make sure you are familiar with SQL Server and have installed at least version 6.5 with Service Pack 1 for SQL Server applied. You’ll also need to become familiar with at least version 2 of IIS and have it installed as well.

The advantages of Merchant is that it comes with lots of tools to help you manage your store, step up your database, and handle financial and accounting of your sales. If you already have databases setup for products and financial systems, and if you can connect to these data sources with ODBC, then chances are good you won’t have to duplicate this information inside Merchant.

Merchant also comes with three different environments for development, staging, and production. You can post changes to your development environment. Merchant does some simple debugging of your HTML pages in this environment, which is a plus. Once you are satisfied with these you can migrate your data over to the production server, where any debugging code is removed. This has lots of appeal, especially if you want to test various storefront configurations and options without having these tests appear in your production online store. However, the migration is complex, requiring you to copy the database schema and its associated data tables, any supporting files such as templates and graphic images, and registry keys. All of this has to be copied manually using the tools in the database server and registry editor programs. That’s a lot of work.

Merchant also comes with a sample version of VeriFone’s vPOS credit card software. This is used to post credit card transactions to your acquiring bank and issue credits, although the version that is included with Merchant is missing these features. If you have an existing merchant bank account, you should obtain this software directly from your bank. If you don’t have a merchant account, then you will have to obtain one.

Setting up a new store is a multiple-step process: First, you use the Administrator control panel screens to make a copy of one of the starter stores that comes with the package. Microsoft has included four sample “starter stores” that have different item groupings and configurations: there is a sporting goods store, a coffee store, a bookstore, and a clock shop. We suggest you take a look at each of the samples to figure out which one matches your own needs the closest. Unfortunately, you can’t mix and match elements of the samples – you can only copy an entire sample store to use as the basis for your own store.

The Adventure Works sample store has the best set of advanced merchandising techniques, including the ability to support sales, promotions, and cross-selling. If you want to take advantage of any of these features, then examining how this store was designed is helpful. The simplest store is the clock shop, with only one type of product and a limited number of items. The clock shop has no searching or registering functions; these are implemented in the other two stores.

Next, you want to run the ODBC control panel and create a new data source name to link to. Then you’ll have to use a text editor to modify a series of four SQL script files, replacing the name of the starter store with the new name you’ve created. Then you’ll run these scripts in Microsoft’s SQL Enterprise Manager, modify the registry entries for your starter store, and restart the Merchant Server from its control panel.

While these steps are carefully documented in the Merchant on-line manuals, that’s a lot of mucking about with five different NT programs. We didn’t mind this as much as the frequent use of the registry editor to do various tasks, including modifying the behavior of the program itself. There are entries to enable cookies to store user identities, to enable SQL Server to startup before the Merchant service starts (otherwise Merchant won’t come up automatically when you reboot your server), to be remotely administered over the Internet, and indeed most of the ordering system itself. Using the registry editor is a concern because there is the potential to damage a working NT server – indeed, throughout Microsoft’s documentation are warnings to be careful typing in the various commands. We hope Microsoft eliminates the need to modify registry entries directly in the next release of Merchant.

Merchant can be freely downloaded from the net at http://www.microsoft.com/merchant/eval/survey.htm, and is a 15 MB file that includes online documentation in both MS Word and HTML format.

 

Lab Notes icat

The heart of the iCat software is its catalog of items, and the software comes with a variety of tools to manage these items, design your web storefront pages, and track purchases. Like Merchant, you post any changes first to a staging database, and then when you are satisfied that your changes are correct, copy them to the live production database. This has lots of appeal, but is somewhat confusing to keep track of.

Getting our store setup with iCat wasn’t too difficult, but does require going through a series of four steps. Each of these can be accomplished by using a web browser or by working directly with the underlying database structure. If you have to make many changes to the sample store, you’ll want to work directly with the database itself. Once your store is setup and you have a few changes, you can deal with the HTML-based forms. This is because the forms take more time to display, fill out, and post the updates than the equivalent database-oriented commands.

The first step with iCat is to create your database. You can use the copy of Sybase SQL Anywhere that comes with the product or connect to your own ODBC source. Unfortunately, the Sybase software was not included in our beta. You can enter the promotional prices, discounts, and upsells here. (An upsell is where a customer is shown another item to buy based on something he or she has already purchased. You want the floor mats with that new car?) Next you design a series of templates, which will control the look and feel of the actual pages of your catalog that will be seen by your shoppers. Third, you specify the location where all the HTML pages, database files, and other miscellaneous files can be found on your hard disk. Finally, you set various sales options such as matching sales tax rates to particular locations and whether or not to make use of the registration, indexing, and searching tools in your catalog.

Many of these options are already included as part of the sample hardware store database, and it is fairly easy to understand how the store is structured and what pieces related to others by just navigating through the pages. For example, the sales tax screens matches a sales tax rate with a zip code. You still have to enter both pieces of information, but at least the data structures are specified.

There isn’t any wizard to walk you through this process, instead you have to visit a series of screens and fill out the web-based forms. It isn’t all that difficult, just time consuming.

iCat comes in two versions, a standard and professional. Even though the latter costs almost three times as much, it is worth the extra money because it runs much faster and is more extensible. A cottage industry of third-parties has grown up to supply iCat with various add-ons, including payment authorization software and sales tax calculators, and these add-ons only work with the more expensive version. We also recommend buying additional memory to bring your server up to at least 64 mB, since the software ran slowly on our Pentium server with 32 mB of RAM.

 

Lab notes Net.Commerce

IBM’s Net.Commerce comes with everything you need in a single package: a web server (IBM’s own Internet Connection Secure Server), a database server (IBM’s own Database 2), and the various e-commerce pieces, including a shopping cart application and a credit card number verification applet.

Setting up the servers should be relatively straightforward, but we had all sorts of problems and had to reinstall the product several times. Once we began the installation on a “clean” NT machine (meaning a machine that had a fresh copy of NT without any other applications), we had an easier time. The setup screens are all HTML forms, and there is plenty of help showing you how to navigate from screen to screen. IBM has done a great job with providing this roadmap on how to set up some fairly complex software.

However, a few tips are missing from the manuals. First we disabled Microsoft’s own IIS web server before doing anything else, something that the IBM support people recommended. We then created a new account that had administrator privileges – DB2 can’t install under the default Administrator account name. After rebooting, we installed IBM’s web server software.

You get the feeling that IBM is concerned about security, which is a good thing when you are setting up your storefront. One of the first tasks you’ll need to deal with is obtaining your Verisign SSL certificate. This is needed to provide encrypted browsing for your customers, but is also needed to get your store built as well. We liked this approach, even though obtaining a test certificate was a bit cumbersome.

After activating our secure key, we then installed the remaining two software components, DB2 and the Net.Commerce server, and rebooted. Not of all this is covered in the printed documentation, but IBM representatives said they were working on an extensive rewrite that should be available by the time you read this. Finally, we started the DB2 server, the web server, and the Net.Commerce server using NT’s Control Panel/Services applet, and began the configuration process.

There are four basic web forms that contain various controls to get your storefront up and running: System Configuration, which contains basic web server details on location of directories; Access Control, with user identities and password information; Server Control, which can start and stop your web and database servers from within a web form; and Database Management, which tells the software the database name and TCP port number. These don’t take much time to fill out, and there is plenty of help from the printed documentation that tells you the sequence of steps more explicitly.

You can accomplish the same tasks if you know DB2 command line syntax, but why bother? This is where the IBM software is head and shoulders above the Microsoft product. With Merchant, just about anything requires a trip to edit the registry, while with IBM’s software there is a reasonable graphical interface.

There are some rough edges to the software, such as dual-purpose error messages that betray the fact that this product originally was developed on Unix. And there is a “DemoMall” sample series of five stores that is included in the software, but unlike the other products you have to install the sample files before you can use them as a template to produce your own storefront. Making modifications to these samples is not well documented either, and not as easy as the iCat product.

Net.Commerce can’t be freely downloaded from the Internet. More information can be found at www.internet.ibm.com/net.commerce/. It comes with three printed manuals that are clearly written: an installation guide, a command and programming interface reference, and a very complete manual for store administrators on how to setup the software. The DB2 manuals are also available on-line in IPF (a Windows help file) or postscript format.

Microsoft Merchant Server 1.0
Company: Microsoft
Price: $14,995 plus $3,495 for each store
Availability: Now
OS Support: NT 3.51 or later
Phone: 800 426 9400
URL: www.microsoft.com/merchant

Icat Electronic Commerce Suite 3.0
Price: $3,495 (Standard); $9,995 (Professional)
Availability: No
upgrading to 3.0
OS Support: Windows 95, NT
Phone: 206 623 0977
URL: www.icat.com

Net.Commerce 3.0
Company: IBM
Price: $5000
Availability: Now
OS Support: Windows NT
Phone: 800 365 4426
URL: Www.internet.ibm.com/net.commerce

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How to Choose an ISP for Your Small Business (c. 1999)

You probably don’t remember the old days of the Internet when it was illegal for private businesses to buy Internet access. Thankfully, those days are long gone, and back in 1999 I wrote a guide for how small businesses could get Internet service. The document has some historical interest at the dawn of the DSL era, and I reproduce it here.

A good starting point is to find a company who will just provide a path from your computers to the Internet. Others will sell a variety of services besides the access, including web space and storefronts, email accounts, and more. Some charge a flat monthly rate while others charge per hour of time that you are connected to the Internet or the amount of disk space consumed by your web site. Often the number of products and service offerings from a single vendor has a complex series of options and pricing plans.

To make things even more complicated, ISPs also differ in terms of geographic coverage. If you are mostly concerned with connecting a single office to the Internet and your employees don’t travel much, then you should look for local or regional providers who offer service in your area. The best referrals here are other local businesses or the advertisements in your local metropolitan newspaper: typically each paper has a special “computer” section which contains many ads for regional providers.

However, if you have more than one office or your staff needs Internet access when on the road, you be better off signing up with a national provider or with one of the Internet divisions of the big three long distance phone companies (AT&T, Sprint, or MCI/WorldCom). These national companies make sense because they have many more local phone numbers to access the Internet: when you travel you’ll pay less for the phone call to connect, although you’ll need to first do some research and find out the actual local number to dial before you travel.

The easiest solution for connecting a single computer to the Internet is with America Online. (AOL) They offer software for both Macintosh and Windows computers, have plenty of local access numbers and a very simple pricing plan that at most will cost $22 a month plus the cost of the local phone calls. However, AOL isn’t suitable once you want to connect more than a single computer to the Internet, and then you’ll need to find the right ISP.

If you are new to the Internet, you might consider purchasing an AOL account to start and investigate several ISP’s web sites yourself. Many have their pricing plans and various options described in detail on their sites, and you can always send email to their support departments and evaluate how responsive they will be before you become a customer.

Make sure you find out how many email accounts are included in the basic package and whether more than one computer can be connected concurrently using the same account. Some ISPs offer different packages for 50 or 100 user accounts, so make sure you understand the various plans so you can more accurately calculate your costs as your business grows.

Services provided

During your investigations, check the following services that are offered by your prospective ISP:

— Pure Internet access. Some ISPs have moved away from providing access accounts, while others specialize in a variety of speeds and connection types. (More on that in a moment.) Some charge separately for different access levels, while others include a certain number of hours per month of connect time as part of their basic packages. Earthlink, for example, charges $19.95 for unlimited access to its local phone numbers and extra if you use its 800 numbers when traveling, while AT&T charges $24.95 for unlimited access.

— Pure email hosting. Some providers, such as Hotmail and Criticalpath.net, specialize in offering to host your email accounts. While CriticalPath charges for its services, Hotmail and others provide free email accounts. You’ll still need to sign up with another ISP for access and web hosting. CriticalPath’s service can be useful if you don’t want to worry about switching email identities when you have to change ISPs, or if you don’t want to maintain your own email system on your own network. (See sidebar on whether or not to consider the free providers such as Hotmail.)

— Web hosting. Some providers provide just a basic web site, while others offer tools to manage the site, update its pages, and measure the amount of traffic to the site. These “extras” are important, especially if you are new to the web and don’t want to take the time to learn all the codes and programming techniques to write your own web pages. The range of services varies widely from ISP to ISP, so it is important to ask for the details. For example, some ISPs will provide web page creation software and help with setting up your site’s look. Others offer image-editing software and other tools. For example, Mindspring offers three different web hosting plans: the low end goes from $19.95 a month and doesn’t allow for eCommerce or more than a single email account, while the high end goes from $99.95 a month and includes up to 15 email accounts and the ability to update your site with Front Page extensions.

— eCommerce hosting. Many providers go beyond simple web site hosting and offer a variety of eCommerce hosting opportunities, including the ability to accept credit card payments over the Internet. Make sure you understand the various options available, and the fees involved. For example, Earthlink offers its “Starter site” package for $20/month, but you first need to purchase a “Total Access account” for another $20/month. If you want to host your web site on a secure server, that is an additional $20/month, and if you want to host a web storefront and process credit card payments, you’ll pay another $40/month. All these fees add up!

IBM’s Home Page Creator is another example of a commerce service provider. IBM offers several different plans, depending on the number of items in your online catalog and whether or not you want to accept credit card payments online. Its most expensive Platinum plan covers up to 50 web pages and 500 catalog items, and will cost $200 per month plus a setup fee of $150. See the table for links to these and other ISPs. Mindspring offers three different eCommerce hosting plans ranging from $49.95 to $159.95, along with other fees for credit card processing, shopping carts, and storefront software.

— Other specialized services, including database hosting and streaming media content hosting, are options that you might be interested in as your online business needs grow and your web site becomes more sophisticated. While these are not essential services for most small businesses, if they are important make sure any ISPs have these options available.

How much speed do you really need?

Once you figure out what your needs are in terms of Internet services, your next step is to determine the speed of your Internet connection and see what you can afford. The typical dial-up modem that comes in most modern computers operates at around 50 kilobytes per sec (kbps). To get an idea of how fast this is, it would take a computer with such a connection about a minute to download a five-page document. This may be adequate for single connections, but sharing such a slow link among several computers won’t cut the mustard for most businesses. So what faster options are available?

There are two basic types of connections: one that is continuous, always-on, where the Internet is available to your office 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This is useful if you want to host your own web site and provide access to your customers all the time, no matter where in the world they are or what time it is. In the past, such continuous connections used to cost several thousand dollars a month, but a new series of technologies is available that cut the costs way down to just a few hundred dollars a month.

These new technologies include Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) and cable modems. DSL service is sold by either your local phone company or a new Internet-only carrier such as Covad Communications, NorthPoint Communications or Rhythms NetCommunications. (see table) You’ll still need to purchase your Internet access through an ISP, however, and coordinate the installation of the line with your phone company. Cable Internet service is sold by your cable TV company, but some will not sell to business locations due to state regulations, and not all cable companies have Internet service available over their networks. Cable service can be unreliable, however, and the speed delivered to your office can vary because you share your connection with a number of other cable subscribers.

With both DSL and cable access, you receive a special device to connect your network to the ISP’s network. This device is called either a cable modem or a DSL modem, although it really doesn’t “dial” anything like the typical modem inside your PC that is connected to an ordinary phone line. It is actually a router that connects your internal network, typically Ethernet, with the external network and the Internet.

Either DSL or cable service may not be available in your location, in which case your next bet is to use Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) service supplied by your local phone company. In most states you’ll have to pay for each call made on this service, so if you use it for more than 10 hours per week, the costs can add up and it may make sense to investigate dedicated digital lines such as T-1 or fractional T-1 service. When you sign up for ISDN service, you’ll also need a special ISDN modem or router to connect your network to the ISP’s.

Making the Right Choice

As you can see, there is a great deal of information to sift through in finding the right ISP for your business. Here is a checklist of what to ask and when during your quest:

1. Collect information, using the web, newspaper ads, and personal referrals. Locate at least five ISPs to investigate further. You might try a mixture of national and local ISPs at first. When you go to their web sites, look under business services or web hosting and access services to determine what they have to offer. How easy or hard is it to find out about these services via the ISPs own information? This can give you a good first impression of what it will be like to deal with them as a customer: if their web site is disorganized and confusing, chances are so will the people working for them.

2. Create your own needs list describing the kinds of services you desire. How many email accounts are needed now and in the next six months? Does the ISP offer eCommerce and other advanced services? Which high-speed connection technologies are supported and which are just plans for the future?

3. Using these sources, check prices, the fine print of various services offered, whether they have local access phone numbers in your area, and how responsive they are towards customer service. Make sure you find out if any services require a minimal time commitment (such as a year) in any contracts.

4. Now go back to your notes and make some projections on where you see your needs changing over the next six to nine months. Check with the providers you’ve researched and make sure that they will be able to grow with your needs.

5. Produce a final comparison matrix with the final prices and services.

Good luck shopping for your ISP. With a little knowledge and some research on your end, you should be able to find the right provider and have the right expectations going into any service agreement with them.

Sidebar: Should you consider the free providers?

There are an increasing number of companies who will offer to host your web site and email identities for free. Yahoo/Geocities, Lycos, Netscape, and Microsoft/Hotmail will set up your web site and email without any money changing hands. At first glance, the old saw about getting what you pay for applies here. Many of these providers require you to use their domain name and abide by fairly rigid series of tools to post your web content on their services. All of them append a few lines of advertising to each email message sent with their service, and include logos on each and every web page.

Still, the free providers offer a valuable learning experience. Many people use the free email accounts for testing purposes, or for signing up to competitors’ web offerings or when surfing a competitors’ web site. You can try out several different web authoring tools and learn more about what works visually and what doesn’t without spending a great deal of money. None of these services, with the exception of Juno and a few others, offer Internet access freely. So if you do decide to take advantage of the freebies, you’ll need an AOL or some other Internet access account.

DSL Providers

Provider URL Cities served
Covad Communications http://www.covad.com 22 regions, including San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Seattle, Sacramento and Baltimore
Northpoint Communications http://www.northpoint.net 17 regions, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami/Ft. Lauderdale, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Washington DC
Rhythms NetConnections http://www.rhythms.net 6 regions, including San Diego, San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Chicago, Boston, and New York

 

Table: Internet Access Methods

Type of line Connection Speed Costs (Initial/Monthly( Range of users/hours per month Recommendation
Dial-up 56 kbps 20/20 1-2 / <30 Casual use and single connections
ISDN 56-128 kbps 300/50 5-10 / 20-40 Best small office solution at present
DSL 128 – 1500 kbps 300/100 10-20 / continuous Limited availability for now
Cable modem 100 kbps – 10 M bps 100/50 10-20 / continuous Great for home use, but not reliable
T-1 1.5 M bps 1000/1000 20-100 / continous Most expensive

 

Table: Operators are standing by (eCommerce Hosting Providers)

Provider URL Phone
AT&T http://www.ipservices.att.com/wss/hosting/ew3bus.html 800-746-7846
MCI/Worldcom http://www.wcom.net/commercehost/ 800-539-2000
Sprint http://www.sprintbiz.com/ip/webhost.html 972-405-5000
IBM http://mypage.ihost.com 888-426-0336
UUnet http://www.us.uu.net/products/hosting/commerce/overview.html 800-488-6384
Mindspring http://business.mindspring.com/commerce/ 888- 677-7464
Earthlink http://www.earthlink.net/business/ecommerce/ 800-395-8425

TABLE: Network Cabling Options

Type What It Is Pros Cons
10BaseT Twisted pair wiring—it looks like telephone wire By far the most popular wiring solution. More reliable than 10base2, readily affordable. Requires installation unless your offices are prewired.
10Base2 Coaxial cabling—like cable TV wiring. Predates 10BaseT Simple to setup. Less reliable than twisted pair, harder to troubleshoot, and more expensive per linear foot than 10baseT (though usually less cable is required).
Wireless Uses radio waves to connect PCs to the network. Can be terrific for older buildings where cabling would be difficult and expensive. Plus you can take it with you if you move. More expensive than cabling and limited in distance covered.
HomePNA Runs your network over the same wires you’re also using for your telephones No new wiring, except where you don’t have phones. Uses a standard supported by a large alliance of major vendors. Still relatively new technology and unproven in small office scenarios.
Powerline Runs your network over your power lines using small devices that plug into your AC outlets. No new wiring. Still a new option on the market and currently offered by only one vendor.

 

 

 

 

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Computerworld op/ed: E-wallets aren’t right for e-shopping

(This article was written in January 1999 and ran as an op/ed on Computerworld.)

If you are trying to enable e-commerce on your Web site, one thing you should steer clear of is e-wallets. Despite numerous and varied technologies, none of them work very well. Most just waste your customers’ time and will cause them to send their shopping dollars elsewhere faster than you can say “world wide wait.”

In theory, e-wallets are a good idea. They store shoppers’ credit-card and other identifying information electronically, so they don’t have to fill out the various payment forms. With a single keystroke, the e-wallets fill out these forms correctly and saves your customers lots of typing to order your stuff.

Unfortunately, theory and practice differ; e-wallets just don’t work. Everyone I’ve tried has failed on the first attempt at buying something. That isn’t a good track record. In fact, it’s one that can send shoppers back to their cars and the local malls.

Some e-wallets, such as those from start-up Launchpad Technologies Inc. (known as Ewallet), Microsoft (an e-wallet is included with Windows 98) and Citicorp’s Citibank take the form of software that must be installed on buyers’ PCs. This is a problem if your customers upgrade or switch their browsers or use more than one PC to do their shopping. Others, such as those from DigiCash Inc. (which recently filed for Chapter 11 reorganization) and CyberCash Inc., actually encode monetary value on your hard disk. To use these, you have to first exchange your hard-earned money for the Internet bongo bucks that are the scrip of choice for each wallet. This has the unfortunate side effect of losing all your dough if  your disk crashes. Some of these wallets only work on particular browser versions: Citibank’s doesn’t support Microsoft Internet Explorer, for example.

Imagine how hard life with physical wallets would be if they acted like e-wallets. You would have to carry several different kinds of wallets around with you, since each store would accept different payment systems. You couldn’t convert your dollars from one system to another without a great deal of work. And if you lost your wallet, you would be out of luck. I daresay consumerism would take it on the chin.

Here’s my advice. If you have a Web storefront, steer clear of e-wallets for now. Let your customers pay you as easily and as quickly as possible. Use credit cards and faxed purchase orders too. If you need inspiration, take a look at what Amazon.com does with its one-click ordering method: It stores customers’ account information on its site, and sends customers a cookie to keep track of who they are. It isn’t perfect, but it is painless. After all, the easier your site is for customers to buy stuff, the more stuff they will buy.

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Payment systems for eCommerce (1999)

In 1998 and 1999, I wrote several articles about eCommerce and taught at numerous Interop conferences around the world on the subject. Back then, there were a lot of 1.0 products and things weren’t all that easy. Here is a piece I did for Internet.com.

These days it seems as if everyone is a “dot com” trying to sell something via the Internet. But behind the explosive rise in eCommerce is the very hard issue of how to process payments from online storefronts. This is perhaps the biggest hurdle of any web storefront owner, especially these days given the multitude of choices for hosting your store and setting it up. Let’s navigate these waters and explain which technology is the best match for your particular needs.

I assume you already have a working website and want to take the first step into eCommerce and sell products on your site.

In order to understand payment processing, you first have to talk and think like a banker. Given that most of us don’t have much experience in this department, let’s first define a few terms. Every business needs to have a merchant bank account, or an account that can accept credit card payments from customers. In the past these were harder to come by for cyber-businesses, but lately a number of service bureaus have made it easier to open up merchant accounts.

When a customer pays for something via credit card, there are two different stages in each transaction, authorization and capture. Authorization refers to checking the account number to see if it is still valid, has sufficient credit and hasn’t been reported lost or stolen. The address of the cardholder may be matched against that listed in the account, also to deter fraudulent use. Capture refers to approval and posting of the transaction (and shipment of the goods) and can happen in one of three ways: online or during the authorization with the banking network, meaning that the transaction clears both the bank that issued the customer’s credit card and your merchant bank; in a separate step after authorization occurs; and in nightly or hourly batches with a credit card processing intermediary.

There have been many missteps in the short history of payment technologies. The biggest issue has been the acceptance of a single standard that bridges both banking and Internet worlds. The trouble here is that the banks are at odds with both users and eCommerce site developers: banks want iron-clad security, even at the expense of ease of use or management.

A good example of how this battle royale has played out in the standards process has been the non-acceptance of the Secure Electronic Transactions standards. Originally proposed by a consortium of banks and IBM, SET was an answer to keeping credit card numbers away from the hard disks of Internet merchants — essentially a way for merchants to verify customer accounts without having to handle the account numbers themselves. SET went nowhere, and has transformed into a new standard called the Electronic Commerce Modeling Language (ECML). ECML tries to structure the data required from shoppers, shippers, and storefronts into a coherent single standard, adding SET security and a few other Internet standards in the process. Again, IBM and various large banks are behind it, and we’ll see where it goes.

Banks are still having trouble with the Internet. Witness in the past few months attempts by Citibank and American Express Corp. Both companies have come out with credit card products that can only be used for cyber-shopping, and both are bad ideas. By far the vast majority of web purchases are paid for with credit cards (or corporate purchase orders for business-to-business sites). While the general press continues to write stories about reluctant shoppers, afraid of getting their credit cards stolen over the Internet, web shopping continues to blossom.

The latest innovations in web payments have to do with personalized shopping portals and new ways to authenticate buyers. The portals involve companies such as ShopNow.com, iGive.com and eBates.com and offer buyers a mechanism for receiving rebates for shopping at stores who are members of the portal’s network. The benefit for the storeowners is to provide visibility and drive traffic to their storefronts, and users benefit by getting discounts for frequent purchases. I am not sure if these networks will get established, however, and time will tell. Still, they are a minimal investment for any storeowner and worth trying.

There are three ways to authenticate buyers at any storefront. One is to use cookies, and tie the cookie to a particular user ID or transaction in your own database. This is relatively easy to implement but many shoppers are unfortunately wary of cookies and have set their browsers to not accept them for security or privacy issues. A second method is to use a straight database login, such as what Borders Books & Music does on its web site. This means that buyers have to remember their user ID and password before they can continue to shop. A third method is to use cryptographic certificates or one of the one-click networks.

Crypto is difficult because you first need to establish a public/private key infrastructure and send the various keys around to your customers. For that reason, a number of one-click vendors have been established over the past few years to make the process simpler for customers to buy things from web storefronts with a simple, single, click of the mouse. That is the theory, anyway.

The one-click vendors, including Cha! Technologies Services Inc.’s 1ClickCharge, qPass.com, iPin.com, Trivnet Inc.and others, don’t use their own form of cyber-money but provide you with their own ID tied to your credit card account number. When you shop at a merchant who is a member of their network, you don’t have to do anything more than provide your ID and password, and the transaction will be billed directly to your credit card. The idea behind the one-clicks came from Amazon.com, who was one of the first online merchants to store customer information in a cookie, so that returning shoppers didn’t have to fill out order forms again. Newer innovations include tying IDs with ISP accounts, and consolidating the billing of items purchased with your ID to your monthly service account bill.

These one-click providers are useful for sites selling digital goods or for users who want to aggregate a series of small transactions in a single bill, such as a daily “pass” to a newspaper web site or for purchasing inexpensive software upgrades. The problem with the one-clicks is a critical mass issue: in order for them to succeed, they have to be accepted at a wide array of online merchants and have thousands of users already setup.

The first wave of web payments began around 1995-6 with companies who minted their own cyber-money and tried to convince consumers to use it in place of credit cards or real cash for Internet purchases. These companies, such as Digicash Inc., First Virtual Holdings Inc., and others failed because people had credit cards and were comfortable using them, and didn’t trust the Internet bongo bucks developed by these and other companies. It didn’t help matters that these products were difficult to implement, requiring custom programming around poorly documented interfaces among other technical challenges. As a historical side note, the biggest initial markets were the porn merchants, looking to guarantee their buyers’ anonymity!

But we still need easy means of making payments, and in the past few years a number of electronic wallets have been created. These eWallets store frequently used information such as credit card numbers, shipping address, and so forth in a piece of software that resides on your hard disk and is invoked when you go to a checkout screen on a web storefront. eWallets are trouble, however: the software is very hard to setup, very particular about the store and screen layouts, and often don’t work as intended. Many eWallets are on their second and third version and hope springs eternal for companies such as IBM’s Consumer Wallet, Brodia.com, Citigroup’s CitiWallet, and Entrypoint Inc. to get them right. A new company called Yodlee is taking the wallet concept a step further and using its service to store other information, such as frequent flyer accounts, email IDs and passwords and other frequently misplaced information. However, look to lots of smoke and little heat in this department for years to come.

A good example of the trouble with eWallets is Microsoft’s foray into this genre. Microsoft had included an eWallet in every copy of Windows 98: unfortunately, it wasn’t enabled by default and buried several screens deep in the Internet Options control panels. Then earlier this fall it came out with its Passport technology. Completely web-based, there is no software to install on any desktop. However, Passport users were required to sign up for its Hotmail email service, and couldn’t initially enter payment information until they are about to make their initial purchase at a Passport-enabled merchant site. All of this is far too confusing for the average Internet shopper.

Web payment transactions can happen in any one of a number of ways: manually entered by a human via a point of sale (POS) terminal in a physical storefront, manually or electronically via a PC acting like a POS terminal, electronically from shopping cart software on a web site, or via an electronic Internet gateway into the banking network. I’ll discuss each in turn.

The POS technologies, both manual and automated systems, were the first attempts to connect the computer and banking worlds without having to alter either one significantly. Basically, these products, including two companies purchased by Cybercash Inc. (Tellan and ICVerify), sell software that runs on a Mac or Windows PC and mimics the standard physical POS terminal found in just about every retail bricks and mortar establishment. They communicate via a dial-up modem or via the Internet to send credit card information to the banking network, much the same way the physical POS terminal does.

If you want to start receiving payments quickly, take a closer look at these technologies and begin with at least manual processing. These methods will work for up to several dozen daily transactions.

The next step up is to install shopping cart software that has a link to the payment processing network. Mercantec Inc.’s SoftCart is one of the more popular and comes with modules to work with various Cybercash technologies as well as other systems. This is adequate for smaller catalogs (less than 200 items) but with storefronts with some programming expertise. The most complex and capable solution is to run your own copy of the Cybercash Cash Register software on your web site: this is for more complex sites with more expertise only.

As you can see, Cybercash Inc. has cornered the market for payment processing, offering a variety of technologies. Began in 1994 with Cybercoin, its own cyber-money, the company has constantly reinvented itself on almost a yearly basis. Earlier this year the company released its InstaBuy one-click network, which has several hundred merchants signed up but has been a limited success to date.

Given this shifting landscape, what should a web storefront operator do when it comes to accepting payments? If you sell digital content, then look into joining one or more of the one-click networks. And if you have shopping cart software already working on your storefront, first test out particular payment gateway technologies supported by the shopping cart software.

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Buying into the Microsoft Web®

Well, certainly this week our friends at Microsoft (and Netscape) have been in the news, as the antitrust trial gets underway. Let’s say you, as an IS decision maker concerned about your own job-safety, allow (or mandate) your systems people to construct your internal web-based applications using everything Microsoft. Your web pages are made on NT running IIS with ASP, and use Visual Basic scripts on both browser and server. You write all of this using Visual InterDev as the toolkit, and of course you stick with the Microsoft-flavor dynamic HTML and maybe XML with the Microsoft XMS extensions. Your systems people want to use all the cool ActiveX widgets and some data-mapped form fields at the browser end. So you decide to use only Internet Explorer inside the company as the sole supported browser to view all these pages.

You think: why worry about any standards? It’s an INTRANET! And you want your systems people (and you) to deliver the richest, coolest stuff in the shortest time. Of course! Oh, and maybe you dictated that the Microsoft stuff is the “company standard” in order to reduce acquisition and support costs.

Now think a moment to where you were back in 1982? You probably were running lots of IBM stuff.

One day, your boss (or even the CEO) says: “Connect us with our customers! I want our customers to have access to their order status, account information, and our own contact people. This must go way beyond an online store. We’re going to do one-to-one marketing here, and since we’re already web based, this should be EASY, right?” The CEO might issue similar orders relating to vendors.

Oh no! Your customers have various browsers out there and some of them won’t display the pages your people developed. You issue orders to develop “browser agnostic” web pages. And now those pesky IETF and W3C standards get in the way! Your systems people start gasping for air because it means the loss of some coolness, and worse, some drudge-type work. Or maybe you decide to develop a whole parallel set of pages for outsiders and maintain both. And who’s gonna pay for this?

So you go back to the CEO and ask for more money. He blows his stack and asks why the hell we can’t use what we have! It’s the WEB, for heaven’s sake. “Um… well, it really isn’t the web, boss, it’s the Microsoft Web® and it’s … better!” So the CEO relents and makes a mental note of this screwup….

But wait, there’s more! Your systems people have been using InterDev and/or FrontPage and don’t know much about HTML, cascading style sheets, form formatting, table layout etc. They have been isolated from the “ugly, low level” standard languages and technologies and have been using the Microsoft web development tools. Those tools cost a lot of money, but they saved even more in labor, eh? Not any more. Well, for some more money you can use more Microsoft technology to develop browser-agnostic pages. But what does that mean? And who’s going to fix a problem with Opera or Netscape? Someone has to know about those pesky standards and be familiar enough to deal with them. More time, more money. Are you going to go back to the CEO again? Was your “the safe thing is to go with Microsoft” decision really safe?

I haven’t even MENTIONED the issue of portability at the server end. You are of course locked into Microsoft technology in your shop. Yesterdays “IBM shop” is todays “Microsoft Shop”. Remember how hard we tried to keep Compaq from becoming the “approved standard” for PCs in the mid 1980s?

By now you should have a fairly tight feeling in the pit of your stomach. So here it is:

  1. Are you willing to bet that Microsoft is going to corner the Internet worldwide? Will it really be “safe” to go with the Microsoft Web®?
  2. Are you willing to bet that Microsoft won’t drop the hammer and start charging big time for products that today are free or nearly so? If your answers to (1) and (2) are yes, then go for it. Personally, I think history has proven over and over again that once a company has a lock on a market, product quality and innovation decline, and prices rise. Are you going to be part of the problem or part of the solution?

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