Netscape Targets Extranet Workflow

Netscape Communications Corp. is trying to become the provider for companies interested in pushing their workflow management beyond the corporate firewall. Those looking to extend their bidding, contract negotiation and customer management processes to clients and partners over an extranet are the target customers for Netscape Process Manager 1.0, which is currently in beta testing and is expected to be shipped this fall.

"Traditional workflow products, which people might have used in some cases, have not been Web-based, so process automation sort of stopped at the corporate firewall," says Desten Broach, a senior product manager at Netscape. "We wanted to make it possible for businesses to extend their processes to corporate customers."

Analysts say Netscape’s announcement scores marketing points because no other company has come out with a workflow product specifically for intercompany communication. At the same time, analysts say, the product lacks functionality inside the corporate firewall thus far, and that Netscape is wise not to try to compete head-on with established workflow process software vendors in those areas.

"Most of the vendors in the workflow community have made some kind of noise about extending outside the company but haven’t put a full-court press on it to the extent that Netscape has," says David Yockelson, a vice president with the analyst firm Meta Group (Stamford, Conn.).

Netscape’s Broach identifies the ideal kind of process for Netscape Process Manager 1.0 as one that hasn’t been done with software before. The potential Netscape customer is using "pencil and paper or basic e-mail or the telephone," Broach says. "The types of processes that we’re addressing are pretty unstructured, dynamic processes. They change pretty frequently, and the people involved change pretty frequently. People have just said, ‘It’s not worth the time and the effort to automate the process.’"

For example, Netscape will use its own product to automate billing with outside vendors such as the company’s law firm. "We’re going to have them start submitting their monthly bills through a process that’s automated through Process Manager," Broach says.

To use the product, administrators define a business process in a visual design tool that allows them to drag and drop reusable components into the process and connect them with arrows. By referring to job titles in the definition process and then relying on a company’s LDAP directory server for the name of the person occupying that job, Netscape Process Manager avoids the problem of having to redefine the process every time someone is replaced in a position.

Process definitions are also stored in the LDAP server, making it possible for other offices of a company to obtain a process that has already been created and customize the process for its own needs. End users participate in the process through any browser by filling out HTML forms. Security features include the use of Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol and the option of including digital certificates to accompany the entries of key decision makers in the process.

Yockelson and other Meta Group analysts say Netscape Process Manager 1.0 is best suited for low-end users in its current version. They estimate that an enterprise-class version is 12 to 18 months away.

"It is important because it’s another one of the windows opened in e-commerce, but it’s not the be-all and end-all," says Kip Martin of Meta Group. "There’s still more to be done, and it’s going to take awhile."

The workflow is not as robust as many other workflow products, especially because of the absence of the capability for performing what-if scenarios, Martin says. Meta Group’s Yockelson says that the product passes up intranet opportunities, and that workflow vendors such as Action Technologies Inc. (Alameda, Calif., and Staffware Corp. (Bedford, Mass., should be close on Netscape’s heels with similar extranet functionality.

Phil Costa, an analyst with Giga Information Group (Cambridge, Mass.), calls the Netscape offering "pretty interesting" but says a shortfall is that Netscape Process Manager 1.0 lacks integration with a transaction-oriented server.

Meta Group’s Martin says the product is a good buy "if you’ve already got Netscape [enterprise products] up and running, and you want some more functionality."