While virtually every speaker at last week’s eTail 2002 conference in San Jose focused on solving the more pragmatic and even mundane issues of making existing retail web operations work more smoothly and profitably, the Microsoft team focused on emerging technologies that will take web retailing to an altogether different level. “The last 10 years have been years of great change, but they are nothing compared to what we’ll see in the next 10 years of the online enterprise,” Microsoft’s Peter Boit told his eTail audience. “We are only in the early stages of e-commerce.”
As vice president of Microsoft’s .Net Solutions Group, Boit is responsible for promoting the adoption of the software giant’s .NET enterprise servers and XML Web Services. Boit identified four major areas where new technologies will drive major changes in web-based retailing in the next few years, including bandwidth, access device proliferation, XML-based data communication, and new web services.
On bandwidth, Boit conceded that “broadband technology hasn’t taken off as we expected it would, but it will.” He insisted also that the proliferation in web-enabled devices, including cell phones, PDAs and kiosks, is nowhere near the saturation point. “There is a massive proliferation underway of web access devices,” said Boit, “and these are all ports for people to access your online businesses.”
Boit and others on the Microsoft speaker panel at eTail 2002 spent most of their time singing the praises of XML solutions, encouraging retailers to embrace this high-speed data communications technology in order to rapidly mine customer databases to deliver information on the web that fits customer profiles, to quickly update and communicate product inventory information across the enterprise, and to communicate product information and promotional content to a wide variety of access devices and third-party shopping portals, such as MSN e-Shop. Mark Ungar, senior producer of MSN eShop, told eTail 2002 attendess how XML technology was already in use by the shopping portal to pull product offers from an affiliate retailer’s database and display it automatically in the context of related information being communicated at the site. “We’re big believers in contextual relevance” in on-line merchandising, said Ungar.
But the Microsoft team gave its most compelling and inspiring look at the future of retailing when it took the eTail 2002 audience through a click-by-click transaction set at a hypothetical futuristic web site it called Shoppingmania.com. The tour, conducted by Tyler Bryson, business development manager of the .NET enterprise solutions group, showed a retail web site that acted like a 24/7 personal secretary designed to manage all of the user’s shopping relationships. Using “passport authentication” communicated from the shopper’s PC to a secure place on the site, the web site knows who the user is the second he logs on, and that knowledge includes all vital information required for a purchase. The site will ask the user for a personal shopping history and a calendar, and if the user approves, that information is also downloaded. The site will use it to make purchase recommendations that fit the user’s profile, to remind user’s of a friend’s upcoming birthday and even suggest a gift from that friend’s wish list, which has been communicated by tapping into the friend’s personal data pool. Instant messaging technology will be used to communicate to users when certain wish list merchandise becomes available, and the same technology will be used to inform users in a single message the shipping status of all their recent web purchases at myriad retail web sites.
“A lot has been accomplished in the online enterprise in the last five years,” Boit said in his summation to the eTail audience. “But what is accomplished in the next five years will completely blow away the improvements of the last five.”