December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Shopping made easier---or so they hope

In a society bent on instant gratification, having to fill out a new form each time customers buy online has all the appeal of delivery by Pony Express. Recognizing this, a consortium of high-profile Internet players, including Visa USA, Microsoft Corp. and CyberCash Inc., unveiled in June a universal format for digital wallets-a move aimed at reducing buyer reluctance and ringing up more sales on Internet cash registers.

Officially dubbed the Electronic Commerce Modeling Language, the new standard-ECML for short-boils down to using uniform field names for digital wallets. Pretty dry stuff, but the standard does hold promise for making it safer and easier to buy products on the Internet.

Theoretically, an electronic wallet allows online shoppers to input their purchasing information once and then automatically fills in a merchant’s order with one click. While e-wallet technology has been evolving for the past four years, a lack of standards has kept different wallets from operating seamlessly on different Web store platforms. If their wallet is not compatible with a merchant’s Web site, customers must start from scratch on purchasing forms, leading impatient shoppers to abandon their carts.

The new format introduces a standard method for capturing information about credit card, billing and shipping address. Proponents say that the guidelines will enhance consumers’ ability to use wallets on multiple merchant Web sites.

Though retailers applaud any effort that simplifies the online shopping experience, acceptance of the new electronic wallet format remains a “costs-benefits issue,” says Thomas C. Edwards, chief marketing officer at Phoenix, Ariz.-based SkyMall Inc. Edwards’ company will study the issue to determine if the new standard truly is better for consumers and not cost-prohibitive.

Industry analysts point to past attempts to create e-commerce standards, such as SET, a security protocol, that have not come to fruition. “I’m skeptical to see if this consortium can do more than previous ones,” says Richard Berkman, senior consultant at net.Genesis Corp. in Cambridge, Mass.

While not a giant leap, the new standard is “an important step,” counters Denis Yaro, executive vice president at CyberCash, a Reston, Va.-based payment technology company and one of the standard’s supporters. “SET was an attempt to retrofit everything. You couldn’t swallow it in one bite, let alone one meal.” By contrast, he deems ECML “a digestible bite” and predicts “sig-nificant adoption” by the holidays.

Perhaps more significant than the new standard is the spirit of cooperation among the cast of players pushing the initiative-a stellar list that includes American Express, Dell Computer Corp., IBM, Compaq, MasterCard, Visa, Nordstrom and Reel.com.

Though the standard “in itself is not earth shattering,” the very fact that different factions are joining forces is very positive for e-commerce, observes Christopher Musto, director of financial services at Gomez Advisors, a Concord, Mass., provider of e-commerce research and tools.

The standard for retailers and technology vendors, as well as an implementation guide, is available at ecml.org. More initiatives-and more indigestion-are sure to follow.

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