By Jim Christensen
On the Internet, before business-to-business (B2B) came business-to-consumer (B2C). Most of the first B2C Web sites provided information for consumers. These Web sites used linked pages of static information, but they were fascinating and even revolutionary because they delivered multi-media information, consisting of text, graphics, sounds, video, and so on. Perhaps even more important, the technology used to build these Web sites, HTML, was relatively easy to learn, enabling many people to enter the high tech industry with little or no formal training.
Before long B2C Web sites became more interactive, allowing users to enter information as well as click links. User interaction combined with security enabled electronic commerce to grow rapidly. Most of us have by now made numerous purchases through Web sites.
From the beginning, building an e-commerce Web site required much more complex technology than building a static HTML Web site of the type seen in the early days of the Web. Maintaining and presenting catalog data, creating the perception of sessions that shopping baskets require using an inherently stateless technology, securely taking orders, and so on, are difficult programming tasks. Programmers and site designers faced a daunting challenge when they attempted to build e-commerce Web sites from scratch and make them perform near flawlessly. Nevertheless, that is exactly what the companies and programmers who pioneered electronic commerce did.
Meanwhile, presenting information over the Web gradually became more challenging. Competition for viewers and customers drove Web sites to more compelling and interesting designs. While the value of an e-commerce Web site can be judged according to the number of products sold and the corresponding revenue, information Web sites tend to compete in terms of site visits (hit count). Companies track the number of people who visit the Web site every day or month, how long they stay at the site, how many pages they view, etc. In general, the greater the number of hits, the better for business. When Web sites charge for advertising, the greater the number of hits, the more they can charge for the advertisements. Conversely, businesses that pay to maintain a Web site that does not get a sufficient number of hits tend to retrench, pulling their content off of the Web. Web content must be interesting, easy to find, and dynamic; i.e., it must change frequently.
Creating and updating an informational Web site gets exponentially more difficult as the site grows in size. Growing a Web site requires more people to coordinate, more content to create, approve, and organize, more links to keep from breaking, more old content to remove or archive, and less time in which to do it. To meet these challenges, successful Web site designers built the required infrastructure themselves, dividing the different types of tasks between specialists.
To date, much of the vast amount of effort expended to build Web sites for dispensing information and selling products over the Web reflects independent efforts to build the same essential functionality over and over. By far, most e-commerce Web sites were built using this approach. Naturally, companies, such as Microsoft, viewed this state of affairs as a business opportunity. In the software business, as in many businesses, whenever the same effort is being duplicated over and over again, it is time to build (and sell) a common infrastructure. Microsoft has been at it for several years now, and some of the products in this space have had several versions released.
The two products that address e-commerce and information Web sites are Microsoft Commerce Server and Microsoft Content Management Server. These servers are the main focus of this section of the book. The remainder of this chapter briefly introduces these two products and reveals their approaches to solving their respective problems. The next two chapters delve deeper into the challenges of building Web sites and managing content, using these two products from Microsoft.