The E-Commerce X Factor

No more watching the clock with executable Internet applications that make Web sites faster
At Yankee Candle Co., where opportunities melt if customers have to wait too long, Internet sales have been hurting profits. Yankee Candle's flagship store in South Deerfield, Mass., is one of the state's largest tourist attractions, but customers were leaving its Web site because it was too difficult to place an order. "We had a pretty strong sense that we were losing customers," says VP of IS Dennis Shockro. The $380 million-a-year company also couldn't tell how many customers bought products online or by telephone.

Four weeks ago, Yankee Candle extinguished slow-loading pages and launched a redesigned Web site that lets customers create their own candles through an interface that instantly shows the effect of choosing various colors, wrappers, labels, and ribbons on-screen, without refreshing Web pages. Instead of displaying static information in HTML, customers' Web browsers automatically interpret code that quickly draws on-screen images. In other words, Yankee Candle's site acts like a PC application. "Now you can do everything but pick up the candle and smell it," Shockro says.

On the Web site of the Broadmoor, a luxury resort in Colorado, potential guests can pick from available rooms by clicking on an interactive calendar, or check availability dates of desired rooms, all on one screen. E-Trade Group Inc.'s site delivers stock quotes by quickly updating a special box without refreshing the rest of its hefty pages. And business-intelligence software vendor Cognos Inc. has built a sample application that lets users interact with its data cubes through familiar drag-and-drop actions--even though the app is running in a Web page.

Forrester Research has coined the term "executable Internet" to describe these Web applications--largely based on Macromedia Inc.'s new line of Flash MX software--that harness computers' local processing power. "HTML pages are extremely limited in functionality," says Harley Manning, a Forrester analyst. "The interactivity drops to almost none."

It's hard to measure whether "X-Internet" E-commerce sites yield more sales or drive customer loyalty, because most of these applications are brand new. But developers say the speed and ease-of-use benefits of getting information delivered from the Internet within a single screen, without page reloads, could lead to better business software in areas such as data visualization and online banking.

"The X-Internet is about making things more like an application than a Web page drill-down," says Don Cosseboom, director of research and development at Molecular Inc., the systems integrator that built the Yankee Candle and Cognos apps.

So far, Macromedia, which plugs into the major Web browsers, has been a popular choice for building X-Internet applications, because the company's Flash Player comes pre-installed in Web browsers on nearly all PCs and Apple systems. Apps built with Macromedia's Flash MX and ColdFusion MX development tools pull data and perform application logic on the server side, and execute apps' presentation layer in the Flash Player, using local processing power. Macromedia's products also use vector graphics, in which the server sends efficient instructions for drawing on-screen images to the player, instead of slower bit-mapped graphics, in which the server sends information about every pixel on the screen.

A number of startups, including Curl, Droplets, and Nexaweb Technologies, sell development tools and software components for building distributed applications with interactive clients. But these environments can be complicated to use and lack Macromedia's widely installed client.

Meanwhile, everyone in the X-Internet market is waiting for Microsoft to arrive; the company has said applications that combine Web delivery and local processing are part of its future. Microsoft's .Net Framework includes Windows Forms technology to help developers build Windows apps that can use Web services. And sources say Microsoft is developing a new Windows user interface, code-named Avalon, based on vector graphics, and due in a future version of Windows code-named Longhorn. A Microsoft spokesman declined to comment on the company's plans.

Darryl Gehly, VP of corporate development at Molecular, says his company develops on Flash tools because they're so widely installed. "If Microsoft entered the market," he says, "it might change everything."

Editor's Choice
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Terry White, Associate Chief Analyst, Omdia
Richard Pallardy, Freelance Writer
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Pam Baker, Contributing Writer