IBM pushes product into whole new sphere

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IBM Corp. has pumped up its WebSphere brand products and started a marketing blitz to make them as recognized in b-to-b as they are in the business-to-consumer realm.

WebSphere is IBM’s server software, used to power e-commerce sites, and it has gained acceptance with hundreds of retail Web sites. Now, IBM is developing new additions to the software to make it more enticing to b-to-b buyers.

Late last month, IBM announced that it has added support for wireless e-commerce to its latest version of WebSphere Commerce Suite. Also, it has introduced applications that handle foreign languages, currencies, trade and tariff restrictions and shipping. The new capabilities aim squarely at the needs of b-to-b vendors, said Ed Kilroy, general manager-IBM Electronic Commerce Solutions.

"Mobile is a must-have in b-to-b because it’s imperative to reach the customer wherever they are," Kilroy said. "If a buyer is off-site, they may still want to be in touch on an interim basis, to check the status of an order or complete another task. We’re being told it is a requirement."

In good company

In stretching WebSphere into b-to-b, Somers, N.Y.-based IBM is not alone. BroadVision Inc. in November began an earnest push into b-to-b. Application server specialist BEA Systems Inc. partnered with BroadVision and has branded all of its messaging with the tagline, "How business becomes e-business." A massive marketing blitz SAP AG staged in 2000 for its initiative has begun to pay dividends with companies using the Internet software to extend previously internal applications and sales engines to customers, according to AMR Research Inc. Finally, Oracle Corp. continues to spend millions positioning itself as a one-stop shop for business buying.

The invasion challenges such companies as Ironside Technologies Inc., SpaceWorks Inc., InterWorld Corp., Comergent Technologies Inc., NetVendor Inc. and InfoNow Corp. All will be under the gun to strengthen their marketing in the face of deeper-pocketed competitors on the horizon.

Facing the competition

At $9,000 for a beginning version of WebSphere and $45,000 for a professional edition, IBM is also undercutting some of its competitors, who charge as much as $100,000 for their software.

"IBM is squaring off to face other commerce vendors head on," said Carol Baroudi, director of e-business strategies for the Hurwitz Group Inc. "IBM’s announcement is a clear indicator of its serious intentions in the e-commerce space."

IBM’s experience deploying a global Internet fueled the WebSphere push, Kilroy said. It had the same issues other b-to-b companies face when going global, including devising ways to handle foreign currencies, foreign languages and shipping requirements. It doesn’t always make sense to build a site for an individual market, so server software is increasingly going to be tapped to handle multiple cultures, Kilroy said.

Marketing blitz

Marketing will play a key role in the IBM push. IBM is trumpeting such b-to-b customers as Whirlpool Corp., Staples Inc.’s StaplesLink service and Inc. in print and TV advertising. By April, a new advertising blitz engineered by IBM’s commerce team will begin appearing in trade publications to tout the merits of a single commerce platform for worldwide b-to-b use, Kilroy said.

Mazda North American Operations has already bought into the WebSphere equation. Noting that the software can handle both b-to-b and retail applications, the automaker licensed it to sell competitive racing parts. The site it created could be a precursor to a wider b-to-b deployment to auto dealers, said Ross Katz, Mazda Web development consultant.

"It is a piece of the puzzle we’ve been searching for to fulfill our requirements for e-commerce," Katz said. "It has all the bells and whistles to compete in an exceptionally competitive market."

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