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E-Sales E-Service Feature Article
September 2001

 

Web-Enabling Your Legacy Systems

BY ROB CRIGLER, MODCOMP

[ Go Right To: The Customer Is Waiting ]


Today's online customers are just a short click away from the competition. Web-savvy consumers expect to find what they want, when they want it, without the need for human intervention. They want immediate feedback that tells them that their order has been processed, the merchandise is in stock and the date it will ship. Nothing alienates a customer faster than a call or e-mail message from a customer service representative three days after placing an online order telling them that their product is now out of stock.

When they don't get what they want, they surf to the Web site of the company that can give them what they demand -- easy, error-free, information-rich access to online ordering and order management. According to a study by the Center for Research in Electronic Commerce in September 2000, 74 percent of companies provide basic product information online, but only 55 percent provide any online customization. A mere 44 percent notify customers of their order status and just 29 percent have any capability to report customer feedback and quality issues to suppliers in real-time. These statistics point to significant opportunities to enhance e-business capabilities and strengthen relationships with the increasingly demanding and sophisticated online customer.

A successful e-business strategy involves a "front-end" catalog site capable of integrating customer needs with the company's business process for an efficient exchange of information. Most companies come to the e-business arena with substantial investment in business systems that are already running their order processing, customer records and inventory control. Unfortunately, many of these systems were not designed to integrate with Internet technology. In order to win the customer, these companies must accept the necessity of tying these business data into the online ordering process in real-time.

Tying The Old With The New
Getting business systems to properly model the business process takes years of investment and fine-tuning. Consequently, most companies desire to preserve this investment when they move forward to Web-enable their successful business systems. At present, most companies select one of the four following alternatives for implementing an e-business strategy:

Do nothing. Companies that avoid integrating legacy systems with their Web sites can alienate customers by not providing them the information they need.

Replace old systems. This alternative requires a complete replacement with Web-ready systems and software. Replacing old systems requires a complete migration of the legacy data and replication of the business rules. This solution is very expensive and time consuming to implement as well as disruptive to the organization.

Create a separate Web system. Companies that run Web systems completely separate from existing business systems require constant reconciling efforts and redundant work; they risk increased occurrence of errors and still do not supply true real-time information for the online customer.

Extend the legacy system to the Web. This option allows companies to preserve their investment in their legacy systems with seamless integration techniques that prevent errors while eliminating double entry and redundant work.

The last option, extending the legacy system to the Web, is crucial to creating a customer-centric interface that avoids loss of sales, enhances repeat buying and preserves the company's existing investment in business information systems. To illustrate this concept, consider how each step in the following online purchasing process scenario requires continued real-time access to customer, payment, inventory and order-processing systems and applications:

  • The customer has determined exactly what product he wants to purchase and is ready to "check-out." She will expect to be told for certain whether or not the product is in stock.
     
  • The customer will expect to see exact pricing, including any discounts. She will not spend the time to read fine print or calculate a discount herself. If she doesn't see her lowest price, she may purchase elsewhere. Companies with discount structures in place for repeat or volume buyers must show the customer the discounted pricing on the fly.
     
  • When the customer does click the purchase button, she will want confirmation that the desired payment method has been accepted, processed and that the order is proceeding.
     
  • After an order has been accepted, the customer will need the option of checking on the status of that order as well as tracking delivery once the order has been shipped.

This scenario shows just a few examples of typical uses for Web-to-host integration, a technique that can be used to extend any information residing on legacy systems to the Web.

To implement a Web-to-host integration solution, a company must first determine what information should be accessed and updated during an offline ordering transaction. Once the information requirements have been established, the company can proceed with the design of its online transaction process to include this same information. Web-to-host integration offers both display only mode or complete interactive capabilities to input/update the data the company deems appropriate.

By integrating a legacy system with the Web, a company can substantially enhance the customer experience and eliminate significant roadblocks to customer loyalty. With these barriers removed, the company can maximize its revenue and margin potential by allowing customers to autonomously place orders online.

Web Enabling Legacy Systems Through Screen Mapping
One of the most practical ways to integrate legacy systems is a technique called screen mapping. The three primary motivators in implementing a screen mapping strategy over the other possibilities are speed, cost and transitional ease. This approach reuses existing systems, applications and logic, leading to a comparatively rapid implementation. Because no system conversions are required, there is no disruption to a company's current business operations and minimal change to its IT infrastructure. These factors combine to create a lower cost, less hassle approach.

Web enabling legacy systems is accomplished through a three-tiered paradigm -- the first tier is the legacy host, the second or middle tier is the Web server and host access server, and the third tier is the Web browser, which acts as a universal client.

The middle tier is the most important and forms the bridge that ties the complete system together. This middle tier uses terminal access protocols such as VT100, 3270 and 5250 to communicate with the legacy system via a "virtual terminal." This technique emulates the standard "green screens" that the sales and service staff see on their terminals. Data are moved in and out of the legacy host via the screen display as if sales entry personnel were entering it. The middle tier also allows these data to be seamlessly integrated into the graphical Web-based pages and forms by passing information along to the Web server.

The host access server is typically built using a rapid application development tool. The developer uses the tool to create a program that can navigate the legacy system through the virtual green screen interface. The application is programmed to enter or retrieve the appropriate information in the appropriate location on the green screen in order to open sessions, gather data, complete transactions and close sessions with the host machine.

Common gateway interface (CGI) scripts are created to instruct the host access server to access the necessary data fields on the host. These CGIs are stored on the Web server and allow the Webmaster to incorporate legacy data into any Web page.

This type of access uses the full benefit of the applications residing on the host system and development times are measured in days or weeks. Screen mapping enables reuse of all the existing application logic, whereas direct calls to the database would not. Typically, placing an order affects multiple modules within an application, such as adding or updating customer records, processing payment, relieving inventory, etc. This eliminates the need to write code to directly access and update the various databases that contain the enterprise data.

A far cry from the "screen scraping" of the past, today's screen mapping is more robust and sophisticated. Three techniques are available to interact with the green screen: absolute, relative and pattern-based. Absolute screen mapping refers to the exact row and column coordinates of a data field. Relative builds instructions of how to get to the desired data field based on the cursor's current location. Pattern-based recognition looks for the data field based on a specific pattern on the screen, such as "account number." Reliance on patterns virtually eliminates the necessity of modifying Web server scripts when minor modifications are made to the host system screen. The combination of these techniques allows for complex interaction with the host. In addition, the ability for simultaneous interaction with multiple systems and applications enables data from disparate sources to be combined to form a single Web page in a matter of seconds.

These techniques allow a company to design its Web catalog and ordering interface based on the needs of its customers, supplying them with relevant data when and where they need it. Once built, quick and easy modifications to the ordering site can be accomplished with standard HTML editor. Integration efforts are completely reusable, allowing the company to extend data to other audiences, such as employees or business partners, through a corporate Intranet, Extranet or wireless device.

The Benefits Of Business System Reuse
Some legacy environments better lend themselves to this type of integration. Mainframe and midrange systems are especially well suited to this type of integration. Although most are not designed for Web access, the screen mapping process allows the data that reside on them to be accessed and displayed on Web pages without any changes to the system or application.

Screen mapping is best suited for mature applications. While today's tools allow for easy handling of minor adjustments to the terminal screen layout, any application that is still undergoing major modifications in which data fields are moving to different screens will require major reworking of the Web access application.

In terms of the host application interface, block data terminal types such as 3270 and 5250 are usually better suited than VT100 serial terminal types. Some screen mapping development environments do support serial data handling, but it is a more difficult environment in which to work.

Many companies have the added complexity of a mixed environment. These, too, can be integrated, and these companies will enjoy even more benefit by enabling disparate systems to work together. Where sales center staff may have used a Windows-based application to create complex product configurations based on customer specifications, and then access a mainframe or midrange system to check pricing and availability, Web-to-host integration can make the whole process seamless through a single, intuitive Web interface. A customer can go to one user-friendly Web site, enter his or her specifications and receive a parts list, pricing and availability all in a matter of seconds.

Extremely cumbersome host applications will add to the development time and cost of Web-to-host integration projects. For instance, typical legacy applications require navigation through 10 to 30 screens to access the necessary data. Some companies have applications that require navigation through 100 or more screens. In this situation, the host access server will take longer to configure, but these companies parlay that development effort by building a streamlined Web-based interface for their employees as well as their customers.

Security Issues And Concerns
Screen mapping offers control of what information is available to a company's Web audience. The company has complete control over what it allows users to see or not see, and what information the users can enter or update. Users gain access to the system via forms generated by the Web server, and the most they are permitted to do is fill in information via the electronic form; the Web server controls the menu selection and navigation through the business application. Because there is no physical connection between the Web client and the business system, and users are never given a system prompt, they have no way of setting up a direct communication session.

Host-to-Web integration produces a standard Web "front end," allowing a company to build in any number of data validation scripts for verification of data integrity. These can verify that appropriate data are entered, such as the type and number of characters in a ZIP code, date or credit card number. Plus, there will be no effect on any standard firewalls and Internet security measures that a company may have in place on its e-commerce site.

Implementation
There are a variety of Web enablement tools on the market, which on the low end are ideal for small and relatively simple implementations. On the high end, there are tools designed to handle massive enterprise integration projects. Typically, the pricing structure of these products includes the cost of the software plus the licensing for the number of concurrent users.

For more complex implementations, there are vendors and consulting firms offering legacy integration as a service, either using their own internally developed tools or third-party tools. In this situation, a user pays for the consulting work to develop integrated Web pages as well as software licensing required to support the solution. The benefit to outsourcing is that users can typically get a fixed bid quote for the implementation of the solution. If the company does not have the internal resources or the necessary experience, outsourcing can be an effective, cost-controlled option.

While return on investment will vary dramatically based on the scope of the project, it is not uncommon for companies investing in vendor-installed integration projects to realize their ROI in much less than a year's time.

Much of the success of a company's e-store will be determined by its ability to build a convenient, customer-driven experience. That experience requires the quick, accurate and obvious display of information that currently resides on the company's business information system. Screen mapping offers an efficient way to make this information available in real-time to customers. Quick to implement, it is an ideal method for many established companies to ensure that IT issues don't get in the way of online sales.

Rob Crigler is the vice president of sales and marketing at MODCOMP, a provider of e-commerce integration software and services. MODCOMP's eCommerce division aims to help its customers take advantage of rapidly emerging e-business and m-business opportunities while preserving their current IT environments. He can be reached at crigler@modcomp.com.

[ Return To The September 2001 Table Of Contents ]


The Customer Is Waiting: Business-To-Consumer Wireless Solutions

BY BRIAN GOONAN, INFORTE

Wireless devices are one of the most significant technological innovations in human history, or so advertisers and technological media outlets would have us believe. Although Asian and European markets have embraced wireless technology in one form or another, America lags far behind. With limited mobile technology advancement, prophecies about the "wireless world" still seem, for many Americans, as insubstantial as the air through which wireless communications travels.

Why have American consumers not fallen in love with wireless technologies like their Asian and European counterparts? In the United States, carriers, hardware manufacturers and application developers must ensure that factors such as technology, functionality, coverage, dependability and ease of use work in concert to serve the needs of the consumer. To date this has not been the case.

Significant and substantial technological, cultural and functional barriers to wireless implementation exist in North America -- but similar barriers also existed in Asia and Europe. A close look at the manner in which companies have triumphed in those regions could prove valuable to companies seeking to make a similar impact in the North American business-to-consumer (b-to-c) wireless market.

Asia-Pacific: Winning The Wireless Race
Some of the most interesting wireless functionality originates in the Asia-Pacific region, which drives some of the astronomical wireless market projections. With approximately 5.9 million wireless Internet browsers -- a stunning 98 percent of the total worldwide wireless use -- the Asia-Pacific region stands as both the pioneering force and technology innovator in the wireless realm.

Japan's NTT DoCoMo has established itself as the leader in the hyper-competitive Asia-Pacific wireless world. NTT DoCoMo's i-Mode service had over 17 million subscribers at the end of 2000, a figure growing by approximately 50,000 users each day. Such astonishing success begs the question -- what is NTT DoCoMo doing right? DoCoMo can point to several reasons for its Japanese success, but first and foremost, the company thoroughly understands its consumer base. DoCoMo's service features characteristics that are highly appealing to the Japanese consumer, including:

  • "Always on" capability. Users do not dial up or log in; as long as the phone is turned on, it can receive instant messages.
     
  • Simplicity of use. Many of DoCoMo's customers first experience the Internet via their cell phones. DoCoMo simplified techniques and instructions allow inexperienced users to quickly browse the Internet.
     
  • Hardware accommodations. To broaden its consumer base, DoCoMo influenced cellular phone hardware manufacturers to build affordable phones with larger color screens and simplified browsing menus.
     
  • Fun factor. Japanese users enjoy the more whimsical aspects of wireless, including cartoon characters, distinctive ringing melodies and trading wallpaper screens. DoCoMo prepared for the "fun factor" when designing its service and now reaps the benefits.

Europe: A World Of Wireless Conversations
Over the last year, Europe has led the world in cellular phone penetration rates. Mobile penetration rates in Western Europe today average about 50 percent, and analysts expect that figure to grow to 80 percent by 2005. Despite the enormous cell phone volume, Europeans have not embraced the wireless Web. Only about 75,000 customers of a total of 162 million cellular phone users access the wireless Web.

However, as a testament to the versatility of wireless devices, Europeans have their own favorite functionality -- short messaging service, or SMS. Advantages of SMS include:

  • Simplicity. SMS does not require users to log into the wireless Web and use proprietary e-mail systems; users simply type their messages directly on the cellular phone and hit "send."
     
  • Reliability. Text arrives promptly at the receiver's phone, which, like the Japanese equivalent, can receive messages as long as the phone's power is on.
     
  • Cost-effectiveness. SMS can be as much as 50 percent cheaper than a cellular call, an especially significant factor for technology-savvy but perhaps cash-strapped younger users.

SMS usage has skyrocketed in Europe. Users send an estimated 120 million messages every 24 hours, with the confidence that their messages will reach their intended destination quickly and cheaply. Just as in the Asia-Pacific region, the cellular carriers determined the primary needs of their customers and tailored their services to their users, rather than forcing users to accept what the carriers were willing to provide.

America's Traffic Jam On The Wireless Highway
Such flexibility and customer awareness does not exist in the United States. Compared to the Asia-Pacific and European regions, American customers have little interest in the wireless Web or SMS. Although the U.S. cellular phone penetration rate is approximately 38 percent, only about 6 percent of those users own a phone that can access the wireless Web, and of those, only 0.3 percent browse the Internet on a regular basis. Wireless Web functionality has not taken hold in the United States for a number of reasons:

Internet access. Unlike Asia-Pacific and Europe, most American Internet users access the Web through PCs, so long-standing consumer habits stand in the way of mobile phone adoption.

Poor coverage and connections. There are still many nationwide dead zones in which cellular service does not exist. In many U.S. urban regions, the sheer number of users frequently overpowers networks' capabilities and oftentimes users cannot connect higher than a 9.6 to 14.4kbs connection.

Superior wired technology. Thanks to its reliance on PCs, the U.S. has developed a superior wired infrastructure. Reliable and cheap access to the Web via traditional phone service makes cellular usage less attractive.

Some text-based wireless applications have taken hold in the U.S., including stock quotes, horoscopes, sports scores, weather, directions, flight schedules and basic m-commerce. The primary barrier to American wireless Web use is that there still exists easier, faster and cheaper means of accessing the Internet. Consumers will check out hot new wireless products for novelty's sake, but unless those products carry significant measurable value, most will languish on shelves.

Consumers Need To Remember Who's In Charge
The wireless industry outside of North America perfectly depicts the value of a customer-centric strategy. In both the Asia-Pacific and European regions, wireless technology companies and carriers have identified niche capabilities that their users desire and have seen fantastic success by tailoring their offerings to the needs of their customers.

Such success still eludes American product and service providers. These businesses could mirror the success of a company like NTT DoCoMo, but must first lay the necessary strategic foundations including:

  • Understanding the customer base. Comprehensive customer research to thoroughly understand consumer desires that can change with time and geography.
     
  • Competitive awareness. Be familiar with the competition's product and service offerings. The goal is not to be the first mover, but the best mover.
     
  • Pricing. Determine the price elasticity of the targeted customers. Will customers pay for different product and service offerings? If so, how much? If not, why not?
     
  • Return on investment. Ensure all product and service offerings meet their goals. Offerings should provide a positive return on investment -- profitability, market share increase, brand recognition growth and so forth.

Wireless technologies are here to stay, and it is only a matter of time before America embraces the technologies. Wireless service companies cannot afford to wait for consumers to "make up their minds" and they certainly cannot tell consumers what they need in their wireless technology. Only by understanding consumers' desires and focusing a strategy on those desires will wireless providers penetrate -- and dominate -- the U.S.' wireless b-to-c market.

Brian Goonan is manager of mobile solutions for Inforte, a strategic technology consultancy firm.

[ Return To The September 2001 Table Of Contents ]


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