Robert E. Frank is one of many innovators wrestling with electronic commerce challenges, but one of the few who can bring military precision to the attack.
He has found an enemy-entrenched incompletely automated business practices-that does not yield easily.
A retired Air Force colonel, Mr. Frank has been tireless in his campaign to eliminate paper from transactions and document exchanges among businesses.
As chief executive officer of Open Commerce Inc. in San Ramon, Calif., Mr. Frank is trying to convince the corporate world of the virtues of open, end-to-end electronic commerce on the Internet. For all the technology investments made in electronic data interchange and other forms of wholesale automation, he said, precious little progress can be identified.
Pragmatism and experience as a designer of automated inventory management systems are what make Mr. Frank, 59, relevant to bankers and their ambitions to keep a hold on payment systems and services.
One of the founders of the CommerceNet consortium-an organization of more than 500 banks and other corporations promoting Internet commerce and related standards-Mr. Frank has been a constant advocate of integrating payment systems into on-line commercial practices.
Because banks and their clients have failed to create a "cash chain cycle," he contends, paper still rules.
"There are millions of companies out there with billions in revenues, but I think everyone would agree that less than 2% of the business volume is handled in an end-to-end electronic way," Mr. Frank says.
The e-commerce chain of events is so complex that few people are actually capable of streamlining it in a cohesive way, he added. But this is not to say that corporations are not trying.
For example, companies are increasingly investing in client/server enterprise resource planning, or ERP, systems, said Ann Friedman, a consultant with Deloitte & Touche in New York. These complex but comprehensive systems come from vendors such as SAP, PeopleSoft, and Oracle, and they automate organizational and business activities across an enterprise.
But Ms. Friedman said there are too many holes among order-entry, invoice-generating, and supply management systems, especially when it comes to ERP systems from multiple trading partners interacting with each other.
Intercorporate transactions still often require reams of paper, Ms. Friedman said. "That is one of the things that needs to be solved," she said. "People haven't totally embraced process change."
Mr. Frank has been focusing on one open standard, S/MIME, as a unifying force.
S/MIME, short for Secure Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions, is an Internet specification for electronic mail. Its third version has vast business-efficiency potential, Mr. Frank said.
It is "the first specification in the history of e-mail that has a chance of going across product boundaries for the convenience of the user," he said.
In other words, personal computer users could open any Internet e-mail attachment, regardless of the system used to originate the message.
S/MIME can support all types of electronic files, such as text files, large batches of electronic data interchange, or EDI, items, or XML (eXtensible Markup Language) files, which are becoming increasingly common in commercial data exchanges and on-line financial services.
He said technologists from Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., America Online Inc., and various other global software leaders are collaborating on the final details of S/MIME version 3.
Within two years, he said, that would put the power to conduct full- scale e-commerce at the fingertips of corporate executives.
PCs are to be shipped with S/MIME compatibility built in, and Mr. Frank intends to be ready.
He aims to build a systems integration business that would eventually be able to customize available technologies for corporate clients.
"I think the services industry needs to fill that gap, taking advantage of people like Verisign, taking advantage of IBM and Harbinger, to collect the pieces and complete the puzzle."
He said corporations would be able to exchange electronic transactions of any type in a safe, secure, nonrepudiable, and cost-effective manner, using existing hardware and software as well as the ubiquitous Internet.
"Everyone of importance should be paying attention to this development," Mr. Frank said of S/MIME version 3. "Ten years from now it will be looked back upon as the turning point for truly minimizing hard copy."
Mr. Frank's job is to convince people that these technologies have value in the business world, that banks have a prominent role to play in integrating payment applications, and that e-mail can be a reliable roadbed for business-to-business commerce.
These tasks are mountainous.
Despite his years of experience, Mr. Frank is struggling to get his messages across. He said bankers tend to completely ignore his "cash chain."
But the most difficulty he has encountered is in persuading venture capitalists to invest in the cash chain concept, which uses secure electronic mail as the basis for exchanging documents, business papers, and other transactional elements.
People have a hard time getting past the notion that e-mails can get lost, an old complaint that Mr. Frank says has been addressed by technological advances. Originators are notified when messages fail to reach their destination, and are told whether or not a message has been opened.
"I really got the idiot treatment something terrible," Mr. Frank said, recalling one attempt to solicit funds for his company, which consists of himself, his wife of 34 years, a daughter, and a son-in-law.
"If you don't invent software, the next killer application that will make them rich in five years, they don't want to hear about it," he said.
But Mr. Frank's friends say few people know more than he does about practical uses of technology.
David Kurrasch, a former corporate banker with Wells Fargo & Co. and president of Global Payments Advisors of Alameda, Calif., has been collaborating with Mr. Frank off and on since 1993, when Mr. Frank was hired to help Wells hammer out an Internet strategy.
Mr. Kurrasch, himself an information systems consultant and technology developer, now hires Mr. Frank to help him with various projects. Mr. Frank "is one of the few people who really has extended hands-on EDI experience," Mr. Kurrasch said.
"You may disagree with his philosophy," he said. "You may disagree with his vision of the future. But he is one of a small number of people who can truly say 'I've done it and been there from the beginning.'"
Mr. Frank earned a bachelor's degree in business management from the University of Oklahoma in 1963, and joined the Air Force that same year. A year later he wrote his first order-entry system for aircraft parts supplies at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
In the 1980s he wrote a procurement system based on the Arpanet, the government network that was a precursor of the Internet, to keep 100 North Atlantic Treaty Organization air bases stocked with Cold War-era supplies and equipment.
He retired in 1985 as assistant deputy chief of staff for logistics management systems. He went on to spend four years as chief technical officer at Control Data Corp. before moving to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, one of the federal nuclear-technology centers that was turning its energies toward private-sector uses.
As chief scientist there, Mr. Frank led a six-year, $37 million proof- of-concept project to build an Internet-based payments system with BankAmerica Corp. The effort involved four federal agencies, 10,000 government vendors, and eight private business networks. During the project's heyday in the mid-1990s, it generated six million competitive- procurement, invoice, and payment transactions.
Back in the private sector, Mr. Frank continued to help companies take advantage of existing systems. He recently worked with Fidelity Investments on a front-end Internet interface to banks. Fidelity uses it to send check- issuance and funds transfer instructions to its banks that use EDI formats.
As he gets older, Mr. Frank said, he considered and tested retirement, "but I can't leave this stuff alone."
"I would not be satisfied if I don't do more," he said. "I am enjoying myself, but I can do more than this. I feel like I should be doing more."