Sun's e-commerce strategy: Is there one?

What's Sun got to offer those who are seeking e-commerce solutions?

By Stephanie Steenbergen, SunWorld staff

July  1998
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San Francisco (July 1, 1998) -- E-commerce, one of the latest and loudest buzz words surrounding the computer industry has big companies such as IBM and HP on the move. Both have been quick to roll out "e-business" or e-commerce packages. But from the beginning of the buzz Sun has remained relatively quiet about offering customers an all-encompassing electronic commerce solution.

Last month, SunWorld ran a story about Sun Community Server, which Sun claims is an essential element to its e-commerce plan. The story received this reader comment: "This article clears up Sun's direction on e-commerce. It clearly states Sun has no direction."

IBM has bombarded peak television viewing hours with crisp and glitzy ads telling you how you should jump up and follow its lead. IBM's Network Computing Framework (NCF) for e-business consists of 37 software products. Among them are the following:

In early May, Hewlett-Packard announced new software and e-commerce software bundles for hardware servers running HP-UX, which are targeted at the Internet service provider market. HP also has its own e-business Webzine.

HP breaks down its product offerings separately for the financial, manufacturing, and telecommunications industries. Though the packages are customized, each contain HP's Changengine and HP Virtual Vault.

According to HP, Changengine is software for "quicker mapping of IT solutions to business processes." It keeps software adaptable, and allows businesses to integrate new technology into legacy systems. HP Virtual Vault is HP's security package that is built on a security hardened version of the HP-UX operating system.

In comparison to the loud and product-prolific deluge from IBM and HP, there's been close to tomb-like silence from Sun Microsystems on the subject of e-commerce.

Evidence that Sun has been contemplating e-commerce does exist, in the form of dedicated e-commerce staff, though Sun officials won't comment on how many. Yet to the observer, Sun lacks a cohesive e-commerce package. There is no one-stop shop available.


Says Sun
Regarding the hype that IBM and HP have created of late, Shirish Netke, Sun's group manager for e-commerce says, "We don't need to play the [media] game the same way other people are playing it. We will need to publicize more at some point, but at this point we won't be doing it."

But what exactly is Sun's e-commerce strategy? It seems Sun prefers to talk about infrastructure and partnerships rather than specific products. Netke says that from Sun's point of view e-commerce is simply an extension of network computing. "We have been practicing that ourselves for a long time," he says.

Netke says Sun's strategy revolves around four points. The first is what Sun calls its "core technologies" -- two of which are scalability and open standards. The second is security. Says Netke, "There are a lot of security-related technologies that we've deployed internally." The third component is Java, which Netke terms, "the lingua franca for e-commerce." And the fourth component is what Netke calls "the best-of-breed solution providers." Among these Netke mentions companies such as Open Market, Broad Vision, and Oracle.

"In many cases, when people think of e-commerce, the glitz is in the business-to-customer relationship," says Phil Burton, Sun's senior product manager with the e-commerce group. He says Sun has chosen to concentrate on business-to-business relationships rather than business-to-customer relationships with respect to e-commerce.

"There's much more money to be moved in the business-to-business relationship than business to customer, he says. "There's often higher volume of transactions in business-to-customer transactions. Business-to-business transactions can move thousands and even millions [of dollars] in a few transactions." Burton won't say this overtly, but it's apparent that more money is to be made by Sun from these business-to-business relationships.

"When you talk about e-commerce we're talking about the total solution," Burton says. "We provide a lot of the infrastructure. There are several different components that are part of a total e-commerce solution."

Netke says the concerns of business customers are much different than those of the average consumer. He cites a 1998 CommerceNet survey report, which says the top four concerns of businesses in order of importance are integration with legacy systems, executive awareness and support, the organization's structure not being conducive to e-commerce, and the lack of trust and too much business risk.

By choosing to focus on the business-to-customer relationship, companies like HP and IBM are getting their fingers dirty in a whole different pot. Netke again cites the CommerceNet survey report, which says the top four concerns of individual consumers are security, no perceived need, the possibility of personal information becoming lost, and the lack of access to Internet.

Netke indicates that Sun is better able to deal with the concerns of businesses than of individual consumers. Sun's recent reorganization indicates that Sun isn't wholly ignoring the consumer market, however. Out of the reorganization came Sun's consumer and embedded products division. Netke says that Sun sees the lion's share of the business surrounding the business-to-business transaction relationship.

But still, all of this doesn't answer the question of what specific e-commerce products Sun offers. Sun is reticent to speak of specific customer e-commerce solutions. "A lot of the solutions come from our partners," says Netke. "Our goal is not necessarily to push our own product."

Again, Netke would rather stress infrastructure. According to him, more than one half of all major electronic commerce implementations are on Sun. "Look at big implementors of e-commerce -- Netscape, Broad Vision -- with all of these people 90 percent of their implementations are on Sun. Oracle's e-commerce implementations are also on Sun. This indicates that the infrastructure of choice is Solaris and Sun."

A couple of things to keep an eye on
Sun joined today with the U.S. Treasury, BankBoston, NationsBank, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, IBM, GTE Internetworking, IntraNet, IRE, RDM Corporation, and DFAS to announce echecks, a new form of Internet payment for e-commerce based on the model of the paper check.

"Sun is one of the two vendors in the whole world that claim that we have an echeck server that can run in a bank," says Netke, "Just like IBM, ours is not an announced product."

Sun is providing the echeck server at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. The server verifies the authenticity of echeck payments, pays the U.S. Treasury echecks, and settles the accounts between NationsBank, BankBoston, and the Treasury.

A product called Java Wallet was also mentioned by Sun's Burton. The Java Wallet is an e-commerce product that is an amalgamation of several other Java-based products such as the Java Commerce Client, Commerce JavaBeans components, the Gateway Security Model, and Java Commerce Messages.


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