E-Commerce Comes To Those Who Travel

NetMorf transforms e-commerce Web sites to support wireless users

NetMorf Inc. wants to help corporate information technology departments satisfy the needs of the growing population of mobile device users who want access to e-commerce applications over the Internet.

The Boston-based vendor thinks that so-called screen scrapers that pare down HTML-based Web pages for wireless devices aren't effective or easy to negotiate. NetMorf's SiteMorfer media server provides companies with a modular, XML-based platform that enables users to rapidly develop and deploy e-commerce applications that support any mobile device, says NetMorf chief scientist Rajeev Tipnis.

A Customized Catalog

PurchasingCenter.com Inc. in Burlington, Mass., which provides products to maintenance service companies, uses SiteMorfer to organize its product catalog so maintenance workers in the field can place orders from handheld devices such as those from Palm Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., and Wireless Application Protocol (WAP)-enabled phones. PurchasingCenter customizes its user interface for each maintenance company it contracts with.

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NetMorf Inc.

Location: Boston

Telephone: (617) 578-9800

Web: www.netmorf.com

Niche: XML-based server software for creating and delivering e-commerce applications for mobile devices

Why it's worth watching: IT managers can use NetMorf technology to create customized access to e-commerce sites and back-end data for users with mobile devices.

Company officers: Michael Maggio, CEO and president Rajeev Tipnis, founder and vice president of engineering Shyam Kamadolli, founder and chief technology officer

Milestones: 1999: Incorporated February 2000: SiteMorfer 2.0 launched

Employees/growth rate: 40; 200% annual projected

Burn money: $11.7 million in Series B funding from VantagePoint Venture Partners Inc. and DSLnet Inc. and $610,000 in Series A funding from private investors

Products/pricing: NetMorf charges $100,000 for its software, plus an annual maintenance fee of $1,000 to $5,000 and an initial consulting fee of $15,000 to $25,000.

Customers: Barnesandnoble.- com, Purchasing Center.com Inc. and CEOExpress

Red flags for IT: Software is better suited to mobile commerce than to document exchange.

NetMorf will face increasing competition from IBM and others as this market grows.
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"Not everyone has a desktop [computer], and many are mechanics, so we had to develop a way for them to access our sites and catalogs. [NetMorf's technology] is a practical way of help," says Bill Sullivan, vice president of industry marketing at PurchasingCenter.com.

Sullivan says he used NetMorf's product to make his catalog interface look like a standard order form instead of an Internet application.

NetMorf uses an XML-based dynamic content specification it calls SiteMorfer Markup Language. The SiteMorfer media server includes an application server and a device server. The application server receives a request from a mobile device, retrieves the information from the back-end database using a plug-in, translates the search results into XML and returns the results to the device server. SiteMorfer device plug-ins then convert the XML content into the appropriate mobile markup language, such as the Wireless Markup Language (WML) or the Handheld Device Markup Language.

SiteMorfer's modular architecture means that it can support additional databases or mobile markup languages by adding new plug-ins. This approach means less hard coding when developing Web applications, says Tipnis.

CEOExpress Co. uses SiteMorfer to connect CEOs to the resources they need, such as market information, news and legal resources, says Christine Eyre, vice president of marketing at the Boston-based company. The firm's clients appreciate having the ability to program all the information they want to see on their handheld devices from their desktops, she says. If a user wants to see only content from Nasdaq and CNN, for example, he can choose to program only those links for his mobile device.

Although her customers like SiteMorfer's ease of use, Eyre says there is one drawback.

"We have quite a lot of European customers. In February, when we launched, NetMorf could not support the European system," she says. European handheld standards differ from those of the U.S., and CEOExpress's launch "was in the U.S. only," she says. "That's not the way you want to launch in a global community."

NetMorf has promised an upgrade that will support the European standard, says Eyre.

Fair Game

Maggio says NetMorf markets to any company that participates in e-commerce rather than content-based exchanges. But larger competitors, like IBM, are also focusing resources on mobile Internet users, says Mark Zohar, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Boston.

"There are lots of hurdles in the way," says Zohar. But he acknowledges that NetMorf has an early lead with its use of a modular, XML-based architecture.

NetMorf isn't profitable yet, but Maggio says he believes the company is in the right place at the right time. He estimates that NetMorf's revenue for this year will about $3 million and predicts $25 million for next year.

NetMorf landed its first large customer, Barnesandnoble.com Inc., in early August, when the New York-based online bookseller announced that it would use SiteMorfer to create an e-commerce site for customers who use mobile devices.

The Buzz: State of the Market

Mobile Space Moving Fast

Forrester Research analyst Mark Zohar says the market for wireless Internet access will be huge. "It's difficult to say the size of the market - it could be all enterprise customers," he says. "[NetMorf] is really trying to add wireless extensions to all corporations."

However, he adds, "the market they're trying to participate in - using the back-end information and databases - is not going to move quickly."

While NetMorf aspires to be the standard application for all mobile Internet applications, Zohar says he thinks it will best serve start-ups and medium-size businesses. But CIOs know they will have to support wireless systems eventually, he adds, and NetMorf has an advantage as a first-mover in helping companies in the transition to support wireless devices.

Zohar says the competitive space for wireless Internet access is still developing. Here is a sampling of the more notable competitors:

Everypath Inc.

Santa Clara, Calif.

www.everypath.com

This application service provider (ASP) replicates customers' Web sites for mobile users. It acts as a buffer between users and the original Web sites, so customers don't have to make code changes to their original sites. Its rendering tool takes HTML or XML Web site content and dynamically translates it into WML script.

Air2Web Inc.

Atlanta

www.air2web.com

Also an ASP, Air2Web develops and hosts wireless applications for corporate customers. The Air2Web software allows Web administrators to connect to Air2Web's application platform to design unique content for wireless devices. The software supports XML and can adapt a single Web site for use with different types of handheld devices.

IBM

www.ibm.com

IBM's WebSphere Everyplace Suite server software is NetMorf's strongest competitor. It supports XML and provides tools for designing and organizing Web content for WAP-enabled mobile devices over the Internet and for conducting Internet transactions on wireless devices.

Holohan is a freelance writer in Athens, Ohio.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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