Handspring keeping flexible, organized

In September, U.S.-based Internet research firm Jupiter Communications released the results of a study showing that only one in five online retailers makes use of such new Web technologies as Java, Flash or chat functions to improve their customers' online experience....

In September, U.S.-based Internet research firm Jupiter Communications released the results of a study showing that only one in five online retailers makes use of such new Web technologies as Java, Flash or chat functions to improve their customers’ online experience.

Critical of that fact, Jupiter’s analysts said too many online retailers were following the ‘shortsighted’ strategy of designing their Web sites to meet the technical capabilities of the ‘lowest common denominator’ in their target audiences.

Not surprisingly, Jupiter suggested that more advanced Internet users – that is, those who have upgraded their hardware, added software plug-ins and moved to faster Internet connections – spend both more time and money online than do their less technologically equipped Netizens.

That view was given some support by the Gartner Group, another U.S.-based Internet research company, which released a report in October indicating that by 2005, consumers will spend 20 times more on the Internet when using a high-speed broadband connection than they do with traditional analogue dial-up modems.

According to Gartner, several benefits inherent to broadband Internet connectivity portend well for an increase in consumer broadband access in the near-term future, namely convenience, improved response time, user-friendly interfaces, and a greater potential to enjoy a customized online experience.

In this special report, we take a look at two companies that have made an early commitment to using available e-commerce technology to offer their online customers a highly customized and interactive user experience on the Web: Handspring and Microsoft.

Handspring, one of the front-running manufacturers in the race to get handheld personal digital assistants (PDAs) into the clutches of consumers and business people the world over, was faced with a challenge.

While the Mountain View, Calif.-based technology developer had had an e-commerce-enabled Web site since the company was founded two years ago, there were limits as to how quickly it could be scaled up in the event of a heavy influx of new product orders.

And, given that the global market for digital PDAs was really starting to take off – sales have increased by an average of 35% every quarter since the company started – Handspring knew it had to act quickly to get the situation in order.

‘We’re young, we’re growing quickly and we needed to build our infrastructure quickly and efficiently,’ says Handspring vice-president of e-commerce Kendall Fargo. ‘The number one thing that we needed was a technology that would act as a foundation that would be able to scale up as our business grows exponentially.’

So, working with Cyberplex, a Toronto-based Internet solutions specialist with offices in the U.S., including Silicon Valley, Handspring set about the task of overhauling its e-commerce system in order that it could quickly introduce a series of new products and count on its Web site to be the launch platform.

With Cyberplex acting as the main technology consultant, the two firms evaluated a range of available replacement platforms, eventually selecting a Java-based e-commerce application server developed by Cambridge, Mass.-based Art Technology Group (ATG), called Dynamo.

Because the Dynamo platform doesn’t require massive amounts of custom coding, new product introductions and upgrades – along with their affiliated online marketing activities – can be implemented in a much shorter period of time than is possible with non-Java systems, explains Cyberplex chief technology officer Rob Payne.

‘There’s a lot of functionality here that would have taken us weeks or months to custom-code,’ he says, ‘and it would’ve cost [Handspring] a lot more money. Whereas now they can roll those features out very quickly with a just a little bit of support from us. It also allows them to tie their marketing programs back to the customer acquisition costs, which is a major benefit.’

Since moving to the new platform in September, Handspring has been able to roll out several new products, including its Visor Prism and Visor Platinum PDAs and a new cellular phone ‘Springboard’ module that can snap into any one of the Visor PDAs.

Fargo, stressing that Handspring’s overriding marketing objective is to ‘entice people with good buying opportunities,’ says the tools provided by the Dynamo platform allow the company to do that very effectively on the Web. With the new tools at its disposal, Handspring is, he says, ‘always merchandising – cross-selling and up-selling – to potential customers as they move throughout our Web site.’

That said, both he and Payne acknowledge that much more is possible.

‘We’re only scratching the surface with what some of these tools can do,’ Payne says. ‘By targeting specific audiences through banner ads, we can offer a range of different product bundles. In fact, we can personalize the experience, so when a Web user clicks on a banner, we can – in real time – display a more compelling product bundle or product offering that has been personalized for the user based on their demographic profile.’

For the foreseeable future, Cyberplex will continue working with Handspring on the technology front to develop strategic applications that will help further differentiate the young tech company in the global marketplace. Whether it be the introduction of new analytics procedures or improved personalization tools, the focus will always be on delivering an attractive return on investment, Payne says.

‘None of this is just technology for technology’s sake,’ he says.

Also in this report:

- Microsoft targets tech-savvy via e-mail: Outbound campaign allowed recipients to shop for computer products without having to log onto the Web p.D13