cnbcs184

Two Hot Net Technologies To Watch

 


by Hal Plotkin
CNBC.com Silicon Valley Correspondent

Nov 22, 2000 05:53 PM

 

The death of the dot.com sector has been greatly exaggerated.

I know that is cold comfort to investors who bet on the sorry likes of Priceline.com Inc. {PCLN}, Buy.com Inc. {BUYX}, or CMGI Inc. {CMGI}.

Setbacks like that could be enough to make you lose confidence in the whole darn Internet sector.

But investors who walk away from the Net are going to wind up leaving money on the table. That’s because, even as the dot.com deathwatch drags on, the Internet continues to evolve. Despite the Web’s incredibly rapid spread, the Internet is barely out of its technical cradle and the next Yahoo! may emerge from among the companies creating the Net’s next wave of technology.

In fact, a combination of promising new technologies could eventually displace portals such as Yahoo! by providing better ways to navigate both the Internet and internal corporate Intranets.

Two of the most important of these newly emerging technologies are one-click searching and XML-powered shopping and business bots. The first lets you find what you are looking for without going through Yahoo! or any other search portal by simply highlighting a word on your screen and clicking your mouse with the alt key pressed.

The second, XML, is a new scripting language that is layered on top of HTML, the basic programming language used to create web sites. The bot is a software “robot” – a program that goes forth and does a particular task, for example, searching through dozens of Web sites to find the best price on an item.

Between them, these technologies promise to change almost everything we think we know about how the web works. Their use may also help determine which old economy companies thrive and which ones tumble into the digital abyss. And the companies that sell these technologies could be the next big things.

Okay, you’ve heard this kind of line before–perhaps just before you placed that buy order for Priceline. But here’s one sign that this is the real deal: virtually all of the leading high-tech firms have already enthusiastically embraced XML. Companies riding the XML bandwagon now include most of the major e-commerce players, such as Commerce One Inc. {CMRC} Ariba Inc. {ARBA}, and Vignette Corp. {VIGN}, as well as more established firms such as Microsoft Corp. {MSFT} and Sun Microsystems Inc. {SUNW}

“There doesn’t seem to be any part of the computer industry that XML won’t apply to,” says Lisa Rein, a contributing editor at XML.com, a leading online source of XML news and information.

One-click search tools and XML are only now beginning to converge. But there are clear indications they will form a pretty powerful duo before very long.

Atomica Corp.’s increasingly popular one-click search tool, which was launched as GuruNet, is picking up more devoted users each day through the same type of viral marketing that originally brought Internet browsers and instant messaging services to millions of computer desktops. (Full disclosure: My sister works for Atomica).

Incidentally, the Israeli team behind GuruNet–now renamed Atomica–includes some of the same techies who invented the enormously popular ICQ instant messaging service, which was bought by America Online Inc.The newly renamed firm recently opened a U.S. headquarters in San Mateo, California and also announced the completion of a second round of venture funding that added nearly $30 million to its coffers. (1st round venture fund numbers have not been released).

Atomica won’t disclose the number of users who have downloaded the free software, but the firm’s little GuruNet icon is now quite common in system trays of heavy computer users throughout Silicon Valley and elsewhere. The product has already won favorable reviews in numerous trade and news publications, including PC Magazine, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Installing Atomica’s free software takes about five minutes. Once it’s loaded, Internet searches can be conducted by simply clicking your mouse over any word or phrase on your screen while pressing the alt key. The answers, which include proper spelling, definitions, stock quotes, encyclopedia references, and related links, pop up almost immediately in a separate window.

What make this potentially market-changing?

Users don’t have to open a new browser window or leave whatever document or email they were working on because searches can be conducted from within virtually any word processing document, email or Web page. What’s more, although still somewhat rudimentary, the software has also been designed to figure out, whenever possible, what users are looking for by examining the sentence where the word or phrase in question appears (telling the difference, for example, between a river bank and a savings bank near a river).
You don’t have to be a genius to see where all this is headed. The big Internet portals have got to be scared silly.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t need a portal. What I need, which portals only come close to delivering, are fast and accurate answers to whatever questions I have. If I can get those answers without going through an online portal, and without enduring all the online hawking that makes the big Internet portals resemble a Middle-Eastern bazaar, so much the better.

But Atomica isn’t targeting the portal space. That could be because the company is not eager to pick a fight with the biggest kids in the schoolyard. More likely, though, the company is not interested in joining a sector that it’s technology promises to eventually eliminate.

Instead, Atomica is emphasizing how useful its one-click search technology can be to businesses where there is a real productivity payoff if employees can get to the information they need more easily. The company says its corporate users, which it is just now signing up, will gain advantages by making sure all employees have what they need at their fingertips without having to engage in time-consuming and expensive searches of the Internet or their corporate Intranets.

An employee wondering about a specific product’s specifications or availability, for example, would simply alt-click once on that product to get the answers.

The entire business-to-business (B2B) sector, not just the business-to-consumer (B2C) sector, could eventually be transformed in the process. “Have you alt-clicked on that?” could soon become a pretty common question.

Atomica may or may not pull it off. But I’m fully convinced that eventually we’ll all be working in environments where most of the answers we need are just a single click away.
Other companies working on one click search products include Flyswat Inc., based in San Francisco, and New York-based Nano Inc.

The other big trend sweeping the industry concerns XML, a powerful scripting language that helps documents and databases do a better job of figuring each other out without need of human intervention. One-click search services such as Atomica are what the user will see. But in the background, databases coded in XML will intelligently organize data and other online goodies such as email and Web addresses so the one-click search tools can automatically find them.

You put these two new technologies, XML and one-click search tools, together and you get an online future that looks very different from the one that exists today.

One day, for example, you might tell your personal XML bot to shop for a new TV set, with all the features you desire, perhaps by simply alt-clicking your mouse on an example. You’ll come back a few hours later, maybe a few minutes later, to find a list of TV sets that meet your criteria, with electronic purchase orders ready for your final review and approval.

Just imagine the business implications, particularly for large-scale commercial transactions.

There are a few first-generation comparative-shopping tools that do some of this. But they are limited in reach to the information they’ve been able to collect in advance of each search.

But if a bot is programmed using XML and operators of Web sites are using XML, too–which is the trend–then every business’s offerings can be instantly made known to every other business. That means searches will no longer be restricted to what has been identified in advance, but to any place where XML-coded information resides.

That may explain why Microsoft’s CEO Steve Ballmer recently called XML the future of the Internet.

“XML has the ability to wrap together, to embody information, and make it available through a universal medium over a Web site,” Ballmer recently told a trade group.

Put simply, the online future will belong to the companies that make the most effective use of these new tools, and to the coprorate customers that do the best job of making them work. Huge fortunes will be made and lost in the Internet’s second wave, just as they were in the first wave.

No one knows all this better than Blaine Mathieu, the well-respected former lead e-commerce analyst at the Gartner Group in Silicon Valley.

Mathieu was an indispensable source during the Internet’s salad days, correctly predicting its earliest, most breathtaking contours. Taken by the opportunities he was measuring, Mathieu eventually jumped ship from the Gartner Group to fill a senior position at Alcheme, Inc., a promising “infomediary” start-up that didn’t make it to the finish line.

Mathieu landed on his feet, though. He’s now manager of market analysis at Adobe Systems Inc., which is championing a variety of XML-based publishing applications.

“It does amaze me how many of the companies that I met with as a GartnerGroup analyst are now gone or significantly downsized,” he confides. “At the end of the day, the key take-away here is that people change their behavior very slowly and reluctantly.”

The big change will still come, he says, but only when online business and commerce tools are in fact, not just in promise, easier to use and clearly more convenient than any other alternatives. In many cases, it’s still harder to order merchandise or supplies online than to dial an 800 number, he notes. That reality, more than anything else, is what has crippled so many B2C firms.

Turning that around could take a few more years. But the powerful combination of new technologies just now arriving on the scene makes progress more likely than ever before.

“B2C e-commerce is not dead,” says Mathieu. “It hasn’t really even been born yet.”

Stay tuned. As Yogi Berra must have once said, the future is still ahead of us.

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