Enabling Technologies for Electronic Commerce

Major Project Leader: G.v. Bochmann (University of Ottawa) 
Industrial Co-leader: W. Kou (IBM Canada Ltd.)


The extensive penetration of computer networks, in particular the Internet, into every day life has changed the way business is conducted and is now changing the way commerce is conducted. The development of the World Wide Web (WWW) has made access to information easy for the common user. It is now commonplace for businesses to have a "Web presence" in terms of providing product information and customer service. Some amount of commerce activity has already started on the Internet and expectations are high that it will become a major form of trade and commerce in the future. This major project focuses on electronic commerce (EC) and the infrastructure necessary to implement an Internet-based version of this application.

Electronic commerce, in its most general definition, refers to selling and buying on the net. In this context, it is not an entirely new activity; its genesis is traced back to the Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) activity in the 1960¹s. EDI [1] refers to the set of activities that are related to the electronic facilitation of the transactions between vendors (merchants) and buyers (customers) (purchase orders, waybills, manifests and schedules). The current context of EC, sometimes referred to as "Internet commerce" [2] due to its dependence on the Internet as the underlying platform, is significantly wider.

There are many different forms of electronic commerce activity. Some forms of these, such as the procurement control environments, are very close to basic EDI in its various manifestations [3]: quick response, just-in-time delivery, vendor managed inventory, automated procurement and order management and electronic settlement. Other activities take the form of "electronic storefronts" [4] and research projects exist which investigate "virtual shopping malls".

In a typical electronic procurement control environment, a customer who has a number of goods and services to purchase arranges with a number of vendors for each of these. A purchase for a good or service is initiated with a request for bids from the registered vendors. The incoming bids are evaluated and some price negotiation might take place as accounted for in the EDI standards. When a settlement is reached, a purchase order or a contract order is issued. The selected vendor issues an advance shipment and billing notice identifying the merchandise, the carrier and the arrival date and time as well as other information that the buyer needs to reconcile the shipment when it arrives. The issuing of invoices and their settlement is also maintained electronically.

Electronic storefronts are those applications which allow a user to order from one vendor. This vendor could be the original manufacturer [e.g., Apple Computers] or a store that sells items from a number vendors [e.g., Land's End, or MicroWarehouse]. These vendors usually have elaborate catalogs of the items that they sell, sometimes accompanied with search engines. The user can navigate through the catalog adding items to his/her virtual shopping cart. At the end of the shopping activity, the user "checks out" by purchasing the items on credit card (sometimes users register and obtain user id¹s in order to avoid transmitting credit card information electronically). Depending on the sophistication of the system, buyers may be sent email messages with the details of their shipment or they are provided the facilities for on-line checking of the status of their order.

Virtual mall differs from the above two alternatives in a fundamental way. It involves purchasing from a number of vendors by means of a uniform interface that hides the differences of the various catalogs and their access differences. The virtual mall brings together the services and inventories of various vendors. Users can both navigate through these vendors, adding items into a virtual shopping cart (analogous to walking through a mall), and perform searches for a particular item or service. The latter type of access allows competitive shopping and is only feasible in an environment where multiple vendor inventories are accessible to a search engine.

These represent a significant spectrum of possibilities in EC applicati on deployment. There are a number of commonalties among all three:

This project addresses the fundamental issues that arise from the above listed requirements and aims to build a prototype of EC infrastructure to meet these requirements. The research projects advance the state-of-the-art by developing technologies that will result in systems with more functionality than currently available [6, 7]. It addresses requirements that EC applications will start to exhibit around the turn of the century. Towards this end, new and emerging technologies will be utilized wherever possible. These technologies include CORBA interoperability platform, VRML 2 virtual reality language, Java and Java applets. The project will also benefit from existing projects such as the NSF/NASA initiative on EC and build upon the core technologies developed in these projects.

The proposed research is based on a system architecture where users are provided with tools that they can use to (perhaps interactively) access and transfer documents from a number of catalogs with varying capabilities interconnected by the Internet which is a collection of networks with varying capabilities. The tools that the users are provided with facilitate browsing and search of multimedia virtual catalogs, purchasing of various goods and services, and secure payment for these.

The research program to develop these facilities will involve a number of research projects. The results obtained from these research projects will be integrated into a system that establishes the infrastructure for EC. A substantial number of these research topics are based on the results obtained in the highly successful Phase 2 Major Project on Broadband Services [8].


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N.R. Adam and Y. Yesha, "Electronic Commerce: An Overview", In Electronic Commerce, N.R. Adam and Y. Yesha (eds.) , pages 5 - 12, Springer-Verlag, 1996.
G.G. Benesko, "Electronic Commerce in the 21st Century", Working Paper, Research Triangle Consultants, 1994.
A. Keller, "Smart Catalogs and Virtual Catalogs", In Readings in Electronic Commerce, R. Kalakota and A.B. Whinston (eds.), Chapter 11, pages 259-274, 1997.
J.R. Sivori, "Evaluated Receipts and Settlement at Bell Atlantic", Communications of ACM, 39(6): 24-28, June 1996.
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