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A Netscape-only Actra

Netscape's recent buyout of GEIS's share in the Internet commerce joint venture draws renewed attention to the business-to-business e-commerce space.

Netscape Communications' (NSCP) recent buyout of GE Information Systems' share in Actra, their Internet commerce joint venture, is drawing renewed attention to the business-to-business e-commerce space.

Even competitors are applauding the move. "I think it will help in the marketplace because they [Netscape] are a big name in this space," said Amelia Mills, vice president of product management for Fisher Technology Group, the online commerce subsidiary of Fisher Scientific International.

E-commerce analyst David Marshak, of the Patricia Seybold Group, agrees: "I think it could serve as a catalyst to help define a broader definition of electronic commerce, not just on the consumer side but on forms-based e-commerce like EDI." EDI (electronic data interchange) involves sending forms directly from one computer to another, thus automating transactions without directly involving any people.

When Netscape and GEIS formed Actra in April 1996, the premise was that it would marry the EDI experience of GEIS, which runs one of the largest secure private networks for EDI transactions, with Netscape's Net savvy.

Basically, say analysts and Actra's president Jim Sha, it worked as a product development strategy. However, marketing the product can be done more effectively inside Netscape.

"GEIS contributed some knowledge and key personnel, and it was important to infuse those into Actra," Sha said today. "Setting Actra aside as a separate company gave us needed time to be independent and set our own direction."

"During that time, Netscape was completely focused on intranets, and if Actra were not set up, we might not have moved as far along as we are today," he added.

Now, Sha notes, Netscape chief executive Jim Barksdale has made extranets and enterprise software central to its strategy. Moving Actra inside Netscape also will help integrate Actra's e-commerce applications with Netscape's other server software.

Customer Nick Alex, an executive with NationsBank, the fifth largest U.S. bank and a major user of financial EDI for moving money, says the GEIS involvement in Actra gave Actra's EDI software a stamp of approval.

"We always liked the fact that Netscape had a partner that understood EDI," said Alex, who is moving business banking applications to the Net because it's safer and cheaper to do there. "We agree that it's a natural progression for Netscape to buy it out."

But the EDI tie might cut both ways.

"I expect them to be competing with us, but Actra's technology is sort of EDI-oriented," said Ken Ross, chief executive of start-up CrossRoute Software. CrossRoute markets what it calls "cross-enterprise software" to link back-end systems from Baan, SAP, or Oracle together between business partners.

"All of us are coming from different positions in the market but moving toward the same position, which is connecting together. There are a lot of different ways to skin that cat," Ross said.

On the EDI side, GEIS will market Actra's software--rebranded as Netscape--to traditional EDI customers that want to use the public Internet as a cheaper transport mechanism than its value added network or VAN. Internet EDI has become a significant trend for companies running VANs, as underlined by EDI company Harbinger's recent acquisition of Premenos, which develops EDI software, including Internet EDI.

In addition to EDI vendors, Netscape's business-to-business e-commerce software also faces competitors like start-up Ariba Technology, FTG, CrossRoute, and CommerceOne.

Bigger players like IBM, Oracle, and eventually Microsoft, also loom.

In announcing its buyout of GEIS in the Actra venture last week, Netscape pointedly emphasized that Actra software is in a market where Microsoft has not yet surfaced.

"A key component for Netscape is that this positions us to compete aggressively in an e-commerce market where Microsoft is not competing today," Lori Mirek, Netscape's senior vice president of marketing, said. "We believe the opportunity is wide open now."

Even if Microsoft isn't in that space today--and the company would dispute that contention--it's coming soon. Next week the company is convening a group of partners in supply chain management--very close to what Actra has tackled.