New portals try B2B

For Financialprinter.com, an e-marketplace launched in November 1999, finding a technology and product solution that could provide rock-steady document tracking and editing features, as well as community-building help features, was key to the ambitious service it hoped to deliver.
Written by Sarah L. Roberts-Witt, Contributor
For Financialprinter.com, an e-marketplace launched in November 1999, finding a technology and product solution that could provide rock-steady document tracking and editing features, as well as community-building help features, was key to the ambitious service it hoped to deliver.

This financial industry start-up specializes in helping publicly traded and newly public U.S. companies electronically negotiate the minefield of Securities and Exchange Commission filings, as well as ensuring that stockholders are given timely access to information about significant company events. All of which must be done securely, of course.

"We get rid of the conference rooms where lawyers, bankers and company executives have traditionally met to hammer out the details of their SEC documents; the printers who typeset and produce those documents; and the carriers who get them to the appropriate parties for sign-offs," says Matt Stodolnic, Financialprinter's vice president of technology. In addition, the company takes on the duty of getting all that information to the SEC electronically, to the letter of the law and on time.

Sensible solution
Because much of Financial printer's business revolves around tracking, editing and maintaining the security of highly classified documents, starting with a portal solution that was initially built to do similar tasks for more traditional businesses seemed like a sensible choice. Though the company considered having a completely customized solution built, Stodolnic says he and his coworkers ultimately concluded that Knowledge Center, the core offering from portal vendor KnowledgeTrack, could ad dress Financialprinter's particular needs more than adequately.

In addition to its document-management prowess, Knowledge Center also offered the bonus of object-level security as well as collaboration, project management and scheduling features, all of which Financialprinter is in the process of rolling out. And best of all, the marketplace was up and running in about four months. The results, for which Stodolnic says the technology deserves much of the credit, have been respectable. Though its client list is confidential, the company has six full-time customers to date and has also guided two additional customers through the initial public offering process.

There's no denying that e-marketplaces such as Financialprinter are placing their stamp on many parts of the computing and business landscapes. And as e-marketplaces rise, so, too, do the fortunes of enterprise portal vendors.

Although the online e-market segment surfaced only about 18 months ago, Merrill Lynch forecasts that the market for electronic exchange products and services may be worth $14.8 billion by 2002. And a sizable chunk of those dollars will go toward portal products and services. The latest numbers from research firm The Delphi Group peg next year's portal software market at $740 million.

However, on the vendor side, the past couple of months have been marked by significant shifts in focus on the part of some of the key portal vendors.

The original entries in the portal market — such as KnowledgeTrack, Plumtree Software and Viador — made their names by building products that slapped Yahoo!-like interfaces on top of corporate intranets. However, thanks to the current craze, all of these players — and some new ones — are rushing to capitalize on the proliferation of both independent and internal company-driven e-marketplaces. And in the process, they intend to expand their reach outside the bounds of corporate walls.

"All these e-marketplaces need some sort of front end, so it's a great opportunity for the portal vendors to get involved in the B2B [business-to-business] space," says Larry Hawes, an analyst at The Delphi Group. "They're also excited about it because, in the long run, there are much bigger opportunities in the e-marketplace space than there are for putting in corporate portals. After all, there's only so many of those you can sell."

But portal vendors don't want to be known as just pretty Web-based faces. KnowledgeTrack, for example, refers to its Knowledge Center product as a portal platform.

One of KnowledgeTrack's competitors, Viador, recently launched its B2B E-Business Portal and opened its E-Portal Framework to developers. The E-Portal Framework provides a foundation to deploy e-business applications. Viador completed the picture by adding to its product offering support of eXtensible Markup Language (XML) — a computer language that facilitates the exchange of business documents — and gateways to legacy data sources, such as mainframes and proprietary industry systems, that will be made available through the company's recently forged partnership with Enterworks.

According to Steve Dille, vice president of marketing at Viador, the E-Portal Framework addresses a coming trend in that it will enable traditional enterprises and e-marketplaces to connect information — such as research, news feeds and internal documents — with actual transactions. "We believe the information angle is where portals will have a play in e-marketplace settings," Dille says. "From our perspective, 5 percent of this is about transactions and 95 percent is about the information buyers need to make those transactions."

Jumping on the platform
Several well-known data infrastructure companies, including IBM , Oracle and Sybase , are also jumping in with their own portal platforms and strategies that, like Viador's E-Portal Framework, are tailored to e-marketplaces as well as old-line companies that want to tie their internal information and e-business initiatives together. In addition, iPlanet , the e-commerce solutions arm of the Sun Microsystems-Netscape Communications Alliance, which just released its iPlanet Portal Server, the design of which draws heavily on the company's joint heritage of building scalable Internet infrastructure solutions.

This notion of portals as platforms also is being verified by industry observers. GartnerGroup (www. gartner.com), for example, published a brief earlier this year stating that enterprise portals are the first iterations of overall e-business platforms to which all sorts of applications will be bolted.

According to John Fanelli, iPlanet's director of product marketing for portal products, businesses are already looking desperately for the type of functionality described in the brief.

"What we're seeing is that companies want to create customized portals off of one infrastructure, one foundation," Fanelli says. "This lets people do things like aggregate information and services for their employees, their external consumer portal and even for a B2B-based portal or marketplace, and this can all be running on the same platform."

But not everyone is preaching the gospel of the portal platform.

Market stalwart Plumtree, whose customers include Ames, Best Buy, Guess? and Staples, is instead promoting the virtues of application and information syndication. In February, the company announced its gadget syndication strategy, the goal of which is to enable companies to send relevant content regarding their products, promotions and news to places on the Internet they deem most appropriate — including selected e-marketplaces — courtesy of XML. Likewise, content and mini-applications can be sucked into internal corporate portals; so, for example, users could have a window to a procurement network or industry marketplace right on their desktops.

"The businesses we talk to are interested in putting proprietary information out to marketplace sites to make it more compelling for their customers to go there," says Glenn Kelman, Plumtree's co-founder and vice president of marketing. "Syndication lets companies be everywhere on the Internet, which is what they want."

Offering yet another variation on the theme, portal old-timer Sage Maker is also going the content route. However, it has opted for vertical content with its SageWave product line, which collects, integrates and organizes external information and combines it with a com pany's internal infor mation data sources. To date, SageMaker has portal products for the oil and gas, financial services, tele communications, in surance, power and pharmaceutical industries, with more as yet unannounced products in the works. These solutions provide corporations with consolidated access to industry-specific news, research and trends from approximately 4,000 content providers. In addition, the company just purchased Global Recall to bolster its content- and document-management capabilities.

As for its e-marketplace play, SageMaker is currently forging partnerships with several unnamed e-commerce infrastructure players and marketplace aggregators to supply the specialized content piece.

"The challenge for e-marketplaces is getting people to hang out, and you need content for that, which is why e-marketplaces are good partnerships for us," says Ron Bienvenu, Sage Maker's chief executive and founder. "We believe the convergence of infrastructure, e-commerce and content is where the portal market is going. Eventually, you won't be able to tell the difference between the three, but we've just fired the first few shots at this thing."

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