Agentics tackles online catalog searching for EC

Start-up company Agentics Inc. this month unveiled an electronic commerce product that allows users via a single query to easily search for and place an order for products located in disparate online vendor catalogs.

SupplyChannel is designed to simplify the process of searching multiple catalogs by making it possible to search those catalogs where they reside online, rather than pooling the data in a single searchable database, and to present the information in a consistent format.

Other methods of so-called self-service purchasing require more work on the part of the vendor and the user, according to David Lieberman, director of sales at Agentics, Burlington, Mass.

For example, solutions that depend on catalog aggregation require that product data be collected and exported into a common database format so that it can be accessed by users. It is difficult to keep this database up to date, he said.

Taking the Open Buying on the Internet (OBI) standard approach, meanwhile, puts the burden of content management on the suppliers and requires that the buying organization and the selling organization be OBI-compliant, Lieberman added.

The server-based product lets the user identify a product, such as a printer, using an identification wizard. The user's query is sent to multiple online vendor catalogs, and the data is returned and presented as single "virtual catalog."

Information, regardless of the format in which it is stored, is retrieved directly from the catalogs located on the vendor site. Vendors do not need to provide a special interface to provide access to their catalogs.

"SupplyChannel eliminates the need for the supplier to give us product data and download it to our system," Lieberman said. "It will go online, search and bring it all back in one simple, unified look. There is [no need] to spend a lot of time looking for what we need" by searching every World Wide Web site individually.

SupplyChannel is more than just a search engine, said Stuart Finkel, director of technology at Agentics. "It's not a search engine in the traditional sense. We don't start every query from the beginning. We go out to the catalog, analyze the pages and retain a template of how to retrieve the product from that site," he said. "We do the pre-processing that allows us to retrieve products and retain that method."

The product also includes a proprietary software algorithm that knows to search for products that may be the same but are categorized differently by different vendors, such as notebooks and portables. In addition, it includes modules that allow the system administrator to set dollar limits and to control who is allowed to buy online.

The government market is probably a more mature market for this type of technology because it has been very aggressive in putting information on the Web, said Steve Hess, president of Internet Strategies International, a marketing and research firm in Sunnyvale, Calif. "If data needs to be duplicated on multiple sites, this could be an excellent solution for them," Hess said. The product should make it easier for smaller agencies that may have been reluctant to jump into online purchasing, he added.

Agentics is targeting the General Services Administration and Defense Department agencies as potential users, said Paul Rodman, vice president of sales and marketing at Agentics. GSA, for example, could host SupplyChannel on its server, making it available to other agencies to search and order from GSA schedule holders, thereby obviating the need for agencies to buy SupplyChannel, Rodman said. Agentics charges for SupplyChannel based on the number of users.

Agentics sells directly to government users and works with systems integrators Science Applications International Corp. and Deloitte & Touche.

Tony Trenkle, director of GSA's Electronic Commerce Office, said the product sounds useful in the virtual world, but he advocates using the Extensible Markup Language standard, which is a format used for structuring Web documents for more structured and advanced searches.

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