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Actra launches e-commerce software

The joint venture of Netscape and GE Information Services debuts its first product, Internet commerce software.

Actra Business Systems, the newest arrival on the Internet commerce scene, today debuted its first e-commerce software product after more than a year of development.

As previously reported by CNET's NEWS.COM, Actra announced that it's shipping a family of EDI software called CrossCommerce, which works over the Internet.

If not for Actra's pedigree, CrossCommerce's debut wouldn't draw much attention. The company is a joint venture of Internet powerhouse Netscape Communications (NSCP) and GE Information Systems, the biggest player in the EDI world and a unit of deep-pocketed General Electric (GE).

EDI, which stands for electronic data interchange, involves automating purchases and other communications using standard forms that are sent directly from one computer to another. Many Fortune 500 manufacturers use EDI over secure private networks called VANs, or value-added networks, to place orders with regular suppliers.

GEIS operates the world's largest VAN, but doing EDI over the Internet is cheaper.

CrossCommerce consists of five products. The first, called ECXpert, will debut this month. It will be priced at $30,000 and will work with Oracle databases.

Actra CEO Jim Sha said, "ECXpert is the first EDI software built for Internet from the ground up and also leverages existing VAN connectivity."

The company is not, however, the only one selling EDI Internet software. Premenos was the first in that field two years ago, and others have followed, including Harbinger and Sterling Commerce.

But Forrester Research analyst Stan Dolberg is impressed by the full CrossCommerce line, not just the EDI product. He sees the lineup as the first Internet commerce software designed from the start to sell to other businesses, not a product retooled from a retail usage.

"They are positioning themselves eventually to supply the full range and scope of application software that a company would need to do Internet commerce," Dolberg said. "They're starting with helping companies incorporate EDI, then moving on to automate the purchasing process."

David Alschuler, senior analyst at the Aberdeen Group notes that Actra now must deliver on its product road map. "I don't see the development plan as producing tremendous uniqueness, but it will put them on front edge if they can deliver," he said.

OrderXpert Seller, software for business-to-business sales that lets buyers serve themselves, goes into beta testing next month and is scheduled to ship by October. OrderXpert Buyer, designed to complement the seller software, is aimed at firms making purchases from many suppliers and will ship by year's end.

By the end of this year, Actra expects to ship new versions of two Netscape products designed for marketing to consumers. MerchantXpert, the renamed Merchant System software for selling goods, is to ship by year's end. PublishingXpert, formerly Publishing System, is scheduled to ship by October for marketing information products.

VeriSign, which provides digital certificates to verify the identities of parties in anonymous online transactions, will provide digital IDs to trading partners using ECXpert.

Actra will sell its software through dedicated sales reps within both Netscape and GEIS's direct sales forces.

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