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MS set on shopping

Continuing its three-year-old focus on the retail industry, Microsoft undertakes an effort to develop a specification that will allow large retailers to pass data between disparate software applications more easily.

Continuing its three-year-old focus on the retail industry, Microsoft (MSFT) has undertaken an effort to develop a specification that will allow large retailers to pass data between disparate software applications more easily.

Microsoft described the move as a first step toward eliminating retailers' high costs of integrating applications. The company is soliciting technical input from companies that create retail applications specifically with Microsoft products.

"Retailers have been struggling for years to make disparate business applications work together," Graham Clark, Microsoft group manager of retail and distribution industries, said in a statement. "The architecture will provide what they have needed for so long: a common way in which all their applications can work together."

The aim is to use Microsoft's software object architecture so that applications can interoperate smoothly and without big investments in custom software code. To the extent that other software vendors adopt Microsoft's ActiveX and Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM) technologies, their applications will work with others in the initiative. The software giant has had similar plug-and-play efforts in other industries, including financial services, insurance, health care, and manufacturing.

Today, retailers use a wide array of applications for tasks including points of sale (POS), inventory, labor scheduling, customer tracking, and demographics. While these systems have interdependencies, few are well integrated. Right now, it can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years' worth of systems integration to make connections between systems.

The new effort is Microsoft's second in the retail sphere, Clark said. Its "OLE for Retail POS" garnered support from 150 companies that work in the point of sale or cash register markets. The POS spec will be rolled into the new effort, which is concentrating on back-office functions.

Clark predicted that major retailers will make the new architecture a requirement for buying new systems. He said retailers and technology vendors that support Microsoft's effort will be announced in January at the National Retail Federation (NRF) meetings, when the first draft spec will be released as well.

The move highlights Microsoft's efforts, dating back to May 1993, to increase the number of retailers that use Microsoft technology. This year, the company sponsored a series of seminars with the NRF for small and mid-sized retailers in 38 cities.

Microsoft will provide online access to information on the specification, including background documents, status updates, meeting minutes, and full technical documentation. The company said the initiative will also open opportunities for software developers that create retail applications to sell components to large retailers.

Microsoft set a December 7 deadline for submitting input to the base framework definition, and tentatively plans developers' conferences on the new architecture in March.