1995 Apr 02

Magellan Interactive IMS XTension
Interactive Catalog Corporation iCat Engine
Elcom Systems PECOS
Digital Delivery Catalog Builder
David M. Raab
DM News
April, 1995

Set aside, if you can, the overwhelming hype surrounding the wondrous future and cosmic significance of interactive marketing. Let’s say you actually want to do something concrete–like build a CD-ROM catalog. How would you go about it?

Being a practical person, the first thing you’d do is to see if somebody has created a tool to do it for you. This tool would provide a pre-built interface with basic catalog functions: casual browsing, directed searches and placing orders. Behind this interface would be some type of database to hold the contents: text, graphics, sound and video. With such a tool, you would just pour in your own contents, make some formatting decisions, and then sit back until out pops a CD that customers can load and run without further assistance. This would let you could focus on the really fun stuff–picking and organizing the contents–instead of worrying about the technical details.

Such tools do exist. They can’t do the initial work of putting your materials into appropriate digital formats, which is at least half the effort in building a CD-ROM catalog. But the vendors will do that for you, or you can buy standard multi-media software to do it yourself. What these products do is give you a database and interface that makes it quite it quite easy to transform your materials into a finished catalog. Although initial implementations are often on CD-ROM, these catalogs can also be adopted to other interactive media such as kiosks and on-line services.

IMS XTension (Magellan Interactive, 403-299-5998) is really an extension of the popular QuarkXPress desktop publishing system, adding features to build interactive, multimedia presentations. These include video, images, text, sound, and animation, plus custom buttons to move around the document. In this view, a catalog is really just a special type of presentation.

That may sound like a rather odd approach, but the quality of the result really depends on which functions are provided. And, except for on-line order placement, Magellan has in fact included pretty much everything needed for a good interactive catalog.

Start with the basic interface. Magellan keeps a clearly labeled set of buttons for basic tasks in the lower left corner of the screen, and supplements these when necessary with additional menu choices in the upper left corner. This type of consistency may seem uncreative to art directors, but it makes it easy for casual users to figure out how to work with the system. The system also continuously displays the current “page” being viewed, and provides a handy “slider” to quickly move within the catalog. The search option allows the user to define several variables at once, such as product type and price range, and then lists all items that meet the defined criteria. The user can manually look through the list, or choose an automated “browse” option that displays each page, waits briefly, and goes on the next. An options menu lets the user choose the pace of the browsing, from fast to slow.

Magellan also lets the catalog designer put buttons anywhere else on the screen–for example, so users can click directly on the name of each city on a map. The example CD’s we saw also made particularly good use of icons, with a little TV set to indicate a video and a little loudspeaker to indicate an audio message. Designers can change these defaults if they wish, but the Magellan interface provides a strong base to work from.

The decision to build an extension to Quark, rather than starting from scratch, actually accounts for some of Magellan’s power. Of the systems reviewed, it was the only one to demonstrate “swatching”: the ability to see a given item, such as a blouse, illustrated in different colors. This is difficult to create, but Magellan could draw on similar abilities already present in Quark. Similarly, Magellan can accept input in an exceptionally large variety of digital formats because Quark is very flexible in those areas. But the greatest benefit of using Quark is probably that companies can draw on existing software, systems and desktop publishing staff, rather than starting with a totally new environment.

As customers are working their way through a catalog, Magellan allows them to put together a list of items to order, or to tag pages (by clicking on the upper right hand corner) to return to later. When it comes time to order, the system will produce an order form with the customer’s billing and shipping addresses, the selected products and a total dollar amount. A customer can store multiple billing and shipping addresses and choose them from a list.

Unfortunately, the Magellan wizardry ends once the order form is printed. You still have to call or fax the order to the actual catalog company, because no on-line hookup is available. Magellan is working on the problem, and should be able to send orders to an electronic mailbox by the time you read this. This is just a partial solution, since it won’t send customers the most current prices or specials, check availability or calculate sales tax and shipping. The company plans to add more advanced approaches, including links to on-line services and two-way communications, in the future.

The IMS XTension was introduced in 1994. It has been used to produce one single-company catalog, and for two multi-vendor catalogs (The Merchant, for consumer catalogs, and The Traveler, for vacation planning) assembled by Magellan. The IMS XTension software itself costs $4,995, but the price of a full catalog includes “mastering” costs that depend on the amount of data involved. An average catalog might be $15,000 to $25,000. The Magellan CD runs interchangably on Apple MacIntosh and Microsoft Windows computers.

iCat Engine (Interactive Catalog Corporation, 206-623-0977) relies on proprietary technology to build its catalog CD’s. Contents are loaded into a Digital Database, where they are then assigned specific locations within the catalog. Designers have nearly total control over introductory materials such as titles and contents pages, but within the main product listings they are mostly limited to changing logos, colors, backgrounds, button images and other superficial aspects of an interface that is basically fixed.

This interface was carefully designed by iCat to be easy for consumers with no knowledge of standard Windows or MacIntosh systems–in part, so it could be easily adapted other media such as kiosks and interactive TV. The basic layout of product pages has standard navigation features in the lower left and a “page” showing four products. When the user clicks on any product, it fills the screen and buttons for additional options and information appear across the bottom.

In guiding the user, the system avoids the pull-down down menus and dialog boxes of conventional graphical user interfaces. Instead, it relies heavily on the color of each button to show whether or not it is active. This can work nicely, but also raises the risk–particularly when inexperienced designers are given control over the size, color and images of the buttons–that distinctions between active and inactive buttons, or even between buttons, background and text, will be unclear. For example, in the Multi-Media Know-It-All catalog put together by iCat themselves, the buttons for product information were treated as notebook tabs. It took a while to realize that different subsets of information were available depending on which tab was active; it took longer still to realize that the color of the type on each tab indicated whether there was any information available underneath it.

Other versions of the system have made these distinctions more obvious, and iCat expects consumers to eventually become familiar with the conventions of its “brand”. Still, the departure from standard Windows and MacIntosh interfaces will necessarily mean additional work for users of those systems–which by definition includes anyone accessing a CD-ROM catalog. Since requiring more work from the buyer tends to reduce response, there is a real danger here.

Esthetics aside, the iCat engine does have the potential to use all aspects of a multimedia catalog–text, graphics, sound and video. Early versions of the system used the initial version of QuickTime to run video, which was very slow; a new version has now speeded up video to the point that it can be used effectively. The initial release of the system also had a very limited search capability, but this will be replaced by May with a version that allows the user to answer a series of questions that narrow the list of items to find, and then either displays these as a list or allows the user to page through them in a “custom catalog”.

The initial version also had no ordering capability, beyond showing a phone number to call for a selected product. The May release will provide a button to add an item to a shopping list, and will be able to transmit that list by e-mail to iCat. Eventually, the system will be able to transmit the orders to other vendors as well, and will add direct interaction with catalog order processing systems.

The iCat engine was introduced in 1994. So far, it has been used to produce catalogs for five clients, with iCat doing the actual production work. The company is now licensing the system to firms that will act as service bureaus, and will eventually make it available to individual clients. A fully produced catalog, including initial data conversion into digital formats, costs $100,000 to $200,000; once materials are in the proper format, a second catalog would be under $100,000. The CD’s run on both MacIntosh and Windows systems.

PECOS (Elcom Systems, 617-551-3380) has already introduced fully interactive on-line ordering. The system uses a proprietary communications technology that allows the user to browse and make selections from the CD alone, and then connect via modem for a short session to receive updates, check prices and availability, and place the actual order. This approach reduces the amount of connect time to a minimum, which keeps down costs for both telephone and computer resources.

PECOS uses its own software to create its catalogs, custom forms and transactions that interact with a company’s order processing systems. The user sees a standard Windows interface, with menu options across the top, a toolbar with icons for commonly used functions down the right side, and the catalog pages in the center.) The system supports text, photos, sound and video, and had by far the best full-motion video of the samples we reviewed. PECOS keeps most catalog contents on CD, but moves product and price information onto a user’s hard drive for speedy access and updates. The system runs on Windows only, although a MacIntosh version is being tested. It can also be used to create floppy-disk based catalogs.

Catalogs can have complicated page layouts with “hypertext” links that allow a customer to move to related pages by clicking on a button or highlighted word. The user can page through the catalog by pressing “next” or “previous” page icons on the toolbar. There is no automated browsing facility, although one could be added with custom programming. The search function uses a typical Windows point-and-shoot query builder, with pull-down lists of search categories (product group, manufacturer, price, hardware type, etc.), operators and user-entered values. Users can search on only one variable at a time, but can limit successive searches to the group already selected. The found items appear in a tabular list that the user can scan or scroll through with conventional Windows up, down and slider controls.

Users can select items to purchase from the search list or with buttons on the catalog pages themselves. The same list can also be used to build a purchase order; in fact, multiple lists can be merged into a single purchase order for convenience. Other than purchase lists, there is no page marking facility.

The real power of the system shows when users press a button to connect with the vendor’s computer. The system automatically updates the product and pricing information stored in the user’s system, and then links to the vendor’s order processing system to check availability, shipping costs and sales tax. Other functions, such as returns authorization and shipment tracking, can be added through custom forms developed with PECOS tools. The system also provides a two-way e-mail capability. It supports multiple bill-to and ship-to addresses and different passwords for individual users. When orders are placed, PECOS keeps a copy in a database on the user’s PC, where it can be accessed with standard software for reporting and analysis.

As the ordering features suggest, PECOS is oriented towards business rather than consumer applications.

The system was introduced in 1992 and can be purchased in two versions. The entry-level “silver” system allows users to create a single catalog with an array of standard functions and a Novell-based transaction server to process orders. The “platinum” system includes sophisticated development tools that let users add their own functions, including custom-designed forms and transactions that interact with external systems. This runs on a Unix server.

Prices for the Silver system usually run between $20,000 and $60,000, and upwards of $100,000 for Platinum. The exact cost depends on largely on the customization capabilities the customer wants, and sometimes on how many copies of the CD they are allowed to distribute. Elcom has sold about 20 versions of PECOS.

Catalog Builder (Digital Delivery, 617-275-3830) also provides on-line ordering, combined with sophisticated encryption technology. The system can creates an electronic purchase order, which can then be submitted through commericial Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) networks or communicate directly with the catalog firm’s systems. Beyond submitting orders, the system can also be set up to send back inventory availability and purchase confirmations. For security reasons, many Digital Delivery customers have these queries work on a bulletin board rather than giving outsiders direct access to their operational systems.

Digital Delivery offers two standard, menu-driven interfaces. One gives users a lays out the contents in a graphical hierarchy to help find products, while the other offers a point-and-shoot search mechanism that lets the user define a series of characteristics and then scan a list of the products that qualify. The system also provides an interface that lets developers build custom interfaces with standard multi-media tools.

The system has been used to build four catalogs, all for electronics components vendors. In addition, one firm has used it to develop an in-house purchasing tool, with information on products from all vendors authorized to sell to the company. This approach streamlines the purchasing process from the perspective of the buyer rather than the seller. In this case, vendors wanting to do business with the firm must provide digital input to update the catalog as needed.

Pricing of the system is split between the Catalog Builder software itself, which costs $20,000 for a single user and $10,000 for each additional user, and fees for each CD produced. The fees can run from $2.00 to $.05 per copy, with a maximum of $20,000 for unlimited distribution rights. Clients who want Digital Delivery to build the catalog for them might pay as little as $14,000 for an initial product.

The system was introduced in 1994 and runs on both MacIntosh and Windows systems.

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David M. Raab is a Principal at Raab Associates Inc., a consultancy specializing in marketing technology and analytics. He can be reached at draab@raabassociates.com.

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