What Makes an Electronic Marketplace Tick?
We live in the most dynamic, productive, and innovative society the world has ever known. Today's economy pulses with electronic vibrancy. We have created an engine of nonstop wealth generation, drawing power from the flow of cheap, easy, instantaneous transactions on the World Wide Web. In the few short years since we first commercialized the Web, this new mass medium has become a familiar presence in offices and households worldwide. Millions of us are venturing out onto the Web to browse for goods and services. The thought of transmitting our credit card numbers to a merchant's distant server no longer seems so scary. Buying online has become so commonplace that we hardly think twice anymore. E-commerce is simply how we shop and work in this new millennium.
Electronic marketplaces are the backbone of our new economy. We are all familiar with business-to-consumer (B2C) e-marketplaces in the form of mass-market portals, online retailers, auction sites, and the like. Just as important are business-to-business (B2B) e-marketplaces, which build upon companies' long experience with electronic data interchange (EDI), and provide various Internet-based commerce services tailored to the needs of particular industries. Trading partners may establish B2B connections through online intermediaries, often called commerce "hubs" or "exchanges," or through secure "extranets" implemented between their respective internal networks. However implemented, these are environments in which dozens, thousands, or millions of buyers and sellers can meet to transact business.
E-marketplaces rely, of course, on networks, software, and the technical wizardry that keep them all operating around the clock, day in and day out, across all trading partners. But what makes B2B e-marketplaces really tick, down deep, are agreements on the ground rules for transactions among trading partners. This is where B2B trading environments build on traditional EDI, with its emphasis on secure, guaranteed electronic delivery of standardized business documents. This is also where Microsoft's BizTalk initiative fits into the world of B2B e-commerce.
The beauty of BizTalk is in the simplicity of the concept and the richness of its potential B2B applications. At its core, BizTalk defines a standard electronic message "envelope" for routing e-commerce transactions between companies. You can transmit this BizTalk message over standard e-mail systems, over the Web, and using other underlying network "protocols." You can process this BizTalk message over any operating environment, using programs developed in any computer language, without need for sending and receiving applications to be online at the same time or other in direct communication.
BizTalk is several things. It is a Microsoft-championed strategic e-commerce initiative. It is a Microsoft-dominated e-commerce industry consortium, repository, and clearinghouse. It is a set of Microsoft-developed e-commerce interoperability specifications. And it is a set of Microsoft and third-party products and services that implement these interoperability specifications.
Fundamentally, BizTalk supports the development of ever more sophisticated "marketectures" for industry segments and the economy as a whole. You can build new e-commerce services by developing new business rules to manage the routing and processing of BizTalk messages and their precious cargo: structured business documents. Change the business rules for handling BizTalk messages and you change the ground rules of the e-marketplace. Change the business rules on your extranet and you re-engineer the supply chain.
James Kobielus has more than 15 years experience as an analyst in the distributed computing and telecommunications industry. He is a recognized authority on strategic telecommunications and information systems topics, and is an occasional speaker at network-computing industry conferences. He is a contributing editor for Network World, and writes its popular column "Above the Cloud." He is the author of more than 150 columns, books, feature articles, and buyers' guides, including Measuring Business Value of Information Technologies (International Center for Information, 1987, ISBN 0-9450-9802-2) and Workflow Strategies (IDG, 1997, ISBN 0-7645-3012-7). His latest book is BizTalk: Implementing Business-to-Business E-Commerce (Prentice Hall PTR, 2000, ISBN 0-13-089159-2).