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WEB IMPACT: ICE application to revolutionize e-commerce

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Hyperlinking is the cornerstone of the Web. Yet why do so many Web sites still feel like islands unto themselves?

The reason is that while it's extremely easy to write an HTML tag and send a user off to another site, it's a lot more difficult for Web sites to share content, commerce offers and other data with each other.

Why? For starters, databases just don't talk to one another all that well. Something about different file formats and database schema just not being all that compatible.

Perhaps even more importantly, there isn't a "trusted" infrastructure in place that lets Web sites share content and data without feeling they are being ripped off.

A group of content providers (including CNET, Preview Travel and Tribune Media Services) and industry vendors (including Microsoft, Vignette, Firefly Network and JavaSoft) believe they have the solution to this problem with ICE, or the Information Content & Exchange, specification.

The power of ICE

ICE is an Extensible Markup Language (XML) application for enabling server-to-server data exchange, including the buying, selling and sharing of content and user profiles between sites.

The power of ICE is that it automates a number of online applications that either aren't feasible or are technically difficult today. Think of an online superstore combining content and commerce from multiple sites. Or a syndicated publishing model, where sites seamlessly republish content from others.

In addition to XML, ICE leverages the proposed Open Profiling Standard (OPS) and related privacy work in the W3 Consortium's Platform for Privacy Preferences Project (P3P) working group. OPS and P3P enable the intelligent profiling necessary to put true content sharing in place.

Web sites can set up profiles that designate what other sites they will exchange content with, while individual Web users can ensure that their individual privacy is protected in any information exchange.

ICE is a big step forward, but in many ways it is just a formalization of a business strategy that is already taking hold on the Web. We've already seen a handful of sites that share content in some way or another -- mostly through brute programming strength.

Pitney Bowes has described -- and hopefully someday will deliver -- a site that lets users compare shipping rates from various overnight delivery companies. WebMethods is the vendor behind that effort.

Major new trend

Elsewhere, another vendor by the name of Junglee has been helping big Web sites such as Yahoo! build comparative shopping and job-board applications. Or think about so-called syndicated sales networks such as Amazon.com's affiliate program, which lets Web sites set up mini Amazon.com bookstores.

What we're seeing today is just the tip of the ICEberg -- of what should be a significant new trend in Web content and commerce.

Richard Karpinski is editor at large for Internet Week and author of "Beyond HTML" from publisher Osborne/McGraw Hill.

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