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COMPUTING

From...

Don't forget your eWallet when you shop online

November 30, 1998
Web posted at: 9:00 AM EST

by Mike Hogan

(IDG) -- Imagine that it's already Turkey Day Plus One, the official opening of the Christmas shopping marathon. You're at your favorite department store and have successfully elbowed your way to the checkout counter with your bargains clutched protectively to your bosom. You quickly slap down your plastic while visualizing the run you must make across the mall to the next shop.

But before ringing you up, the clerk asks you to fill out a form with your name, address, credit and shipping information, mother's maiden name, and what have you. That store wouldn't see the treads of your tennies any time soon, would it?

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That's one of the hurdles that could slow you down on the Web this holiday buying season. Most online merchants ask you to enter all your personal, credit, and shipping information into a Web-based form each time you want to make a purchase.

The solution may be eWallet, a small software program downloadable for free from Idealab, a high-tech incubator in Pasadena, California (see eWallet link below).

EWallet: Private and Secure

EWallet is a small browser extension that you "carry" as you move from one Web site to another on your shopping spree. It contains all the usual credit information that you otherwise must type into e-commerce sites over and over.

After browsing a site and making your selections, you click the eWallet icon in your Windows task bar, enter your PIN number, and drag your plastic of choice onto the site's order form. EWallet automatically fills in the necessary data; the site will prompt you to complete any blanks. You also are free to override any field eWallet has completed.

EWallet is similar to a fulfillment model already used by some of the larger Internet service providers and Web portal sites, says George Barto, senior research analyst for INTECO.

The difference, says Idealab Chair Bill Gross, is that eWallet doesn't depend on mutual e-commerce pacts among Web merchants to work.

"The major difference between us and Excite, for example, is that they work at only 12 participating merchants, who are paying Excite a transaction fee for every purchase," says Gross. "We are not holding the customer's data. It's on your PC; eWallet just passes it through to a site without us ever even seeing it."

Other companies with wallet initiatives try to gain ownership of your personal data so they can sell the information or merchandise it in various ways to online markets and others, Gross says.

"Sites don't like that; and big, and important sites won't participate because that siphons off their brand identity," Gross adds.

Free eWallet Generates Revenue

Idealab doesn't even know what's in your eWallet. But the company can make money from the venture. Already about 20 merchants extend discounts to eWallet users while paying Idealab for the privilege.

Similarly, eWallet displays a task bar including six search engines, each of which pays Idealab.

"This works because merchants have a high cost of customer acquisition, and we lower it," Gross says. "We bring them customers with their wallets open."

In coming months, Idealab plans to build an auction capability into eWallet so you can shop by taking the lowest bid from several online merchants who offer the same item.

Analysts predict a watershed online buying season. Jupiter Communications forecasts $2.9 billion in online sales during this quarter, almost three times the $1 billion realized in the fourth quarter 1997.

Gross doesn't figure that eWallet will attract many mall shoppers early in the season. But just wait as the shopping days until Christmas tick down, and the choice is between fighting vicious hordes of shoppers and quietly browsing on a PC. Don't forget: The Web never closes.

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