CommerceNet Helps Companies Feel Out the Web

Fifty companies test the waters with self-help trade group

The increasing number of commercial ventures on the Internet has quickly spread to the World-Wide Web, where companies are beginning to offer catalogs, directories, indexes and other information. Although business transactions via the Web are not widespread, the infrastructure is evolving to make that possible.

Commercialization has been welcomed by Web and Mosaic developers, including Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the Web, and Joseph Hardin, associate director for software development at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois. "We've been arguing for the last two years that the Internet needs to become more commercial, in the sense of being open to commercial activity," Hardin says, "because that's the only way that we're really going to get the bandwidth we want for the kinds of things we want to do. People need to be able to make money over the Net."

One of the highest-profile commercial endeavors has been CommerceNet, the first large-scale market trial of electronic commerce on the Internet, which was formally launched last April. With headquarters in Santa Clara, CA, CommerceNet is a non-profit, federally funded organization with a three-year mission to help bootstrap the use of the Web by private companies. CommerceNet now has about 50 member companies, most of whom have established servers on the Web containing information available to the public.

The CommerceNet Web server is accessible at the URL, where a directory of member companies is available.

CommerceNet's sponsoring organizations are BARRNet, the San Francisco Bay Area Internet access provider; Enterprise Integration Technologies of Palo Alto, CA, research and development consultants; and Stanford University's Center for Information Technology.

The organizations felt Web commerce needed encouragement, says Allan Schiffman, chief technical officer of EIT. "When technology's in its early days, nobody's very confident about taking on a new market alone," Schiffman says. "But then when things start to become clearer, people start feeling their competitive oats. Big companies now are still feeling their way out on the Internet. What their role is they're not completely sure. They want that to be part of the future, but how they play in the marketplace they're not certain."

Company activities are largely limited to information now because of the lack of security on the Web and the Internet generally. "What you're seeing CommerceNet members do at this stage is bringing their product catalogs on-line and making their sales literature available," Schiffman says. They even have some facilities for doing ordering." Transactions are another problem. "If you can't do the most fundamental things, namely keep your information confidential between a buyer and a seller, and if you can't identify who the seller is or who the buyer is, then it's really hard to get very far," Schiffman says. "Big companies are really worried. When they send stuff to a customer, they want to make sure that people can't steal it and can't see what they're doing. They want to be able to supply confidential information and they want to be able to get paid for things. They can't do any of these things without some kind of a security mechanism."

A step toward allowing secure transactions was taken in August with the beta release of a secure version of NCSA Mosaic, the most popular Web interface. The software was developed as a cooperative effort among EIT, RSA Data Security, and NCSA. Full release of the product is expected sometime in October to CommerceNet members, and a general NCSA distribution will come later, Schiffman said. Secure Mosaic is supposed to make secure commercial transactions possible.

The secure version of NCSA Mosaic allows users to affix digital signatures that cannot be repudiated, as well as time stamps to contracts so that they become legally binding and auditable. In addition, sensitive information such as credit card numbers and bid amounts can be securely exchanged under encryption.

In the meantime, CommerceNet is helping its member companies establish their servers, get up on the Web and make their product information available. Some members are starting to work together on cooperative products to do more things, like electronic data interchange over the Internet and building multivendor catalogs.