Software to help Net stores

Several e-commerce firms and Web publishers plan to propose a new standard for data exchange to boost the growth of online storefronts.

Several e-commerce software vendors are joining major Web publishers to propose a new standard for exchanging information among Internet sites to boost the growth of Web superstores.

Impetus for the proposed Information & Content Exchange (ICE) protocol comes from FireFly Networks, a collaborative filtering technology firm, and Vignette, which markets publishing software used by major Web sites.

Based on eXtensible Mark-up Language (XML), ICE is a protocol to help sites exchange information or "electronic assets" with each other automatically on terms to which the two parties have agreed.

"It's for wiring Web sites together to build a new class of online business," said Ross Garber, Vignette chief executive. "ICE is a standard protocol to allow any two Web businesses in the world to build a business-to-business relationship. It not only takes care of the mechanics of physically moving the data around, but it automates all the business rules."

For example, an online grocer might want to sell specialty food products from all over the world. Today that would require the grocery superstore to write customized software to pull pricing, inventory, and terms from databases of each individual supplier. Writing that code eventually would limit how many products the mega-grocer could offer.

If both the online grocer and a specialty food supplier in Thailand supported ICE, they could to exchange data automatically, in ways described by ICE, and even work out terms.

ICE sponsors are still discussing to which standards body they will submit ICE sometime in the next three months, but Garber confirms that the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which handles the XML standard, is in the running.

Vignette also will release its product road map for 1998, which includes a plan by summer to ship the first server software, called Site-to-Site, to support the ICE protocol. Site-to-Site will allow users to exchange product information and negotiate terms automatically.

Other technology firms backing ICE are JavaSoft, Net Perceptions, and Adobe. Major Web sites joining the ICE initiative include National Semiconductor, Preview Travel, CUC International, the Chicago Tribune, ZDNet, and CNET: The Computer Network, which publishes NEWS.COM.

Vignette's flagship product, StoryServer, is based on technology purchased in a deal last year with CNET: The Computer Network. CNET also owns an equity stake in Vignette.

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