Side by side with its customer Norwest Mortgage Inc., International Business Machines Corp. introduced a powerful Internet system development tool called WebSphere Studio.
Norwest Corp.'s home loan subsidiary, an enthusiast of the Java programming language that underlies WebSphere, seized the opportunity as a "beta test" site to put its brokers and correspondent banks into self- service mode.
WebSphere Studio and the new version of a related system, WebSphere Application Server, will not be widely available until October. They were unveiled, along with Norwest's advance work, at the Comdex Enterprise exposition last week in San Francisco.
With WebSphere, which IBM describes as crucial to its "e-business" Internet strategy, Norwest customers can communicate loan details and get help on-line, freeing Norwest personnel to perform higher-level tasks than dealing with faxes and keyboarding data.
"The exciting part is that loan packages-which used to come in by Federal Express or fax-go directly into our system and don't have to be keyed in," said Norwest Mortgage systems architect David Rae.
Norwest Mortgage, which is based in Des Moines, has been developing software in Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java language for almost two years, said Mr. Rae.
"This is our first extranet-type application that goes outside the company," he added.
"We have about 5,000 brokers plus correspondent bankers, and we think this will make them more loyal" with round-the-clock access for submitting loan information, locking in terms, printing documents, and checking loan status.
Norwest has about six months with WebSphere under its belt. Java gives it the flexibility to operate across any type of computer platform, the application server takes care of the management of the software pieces known as servlets and Java Beans, and WebSphere Studio enables rapid application development, officials said.
Aberdeen Group, a Boston-based research firm, said WebSphere overcomes problems many companies have faced in creating fully transactional Web sites and linking them with inflexible legacy systems.
An Aberdeen report in June said, "Web sites can build reliable applications that execute in an open, reliable environment today and will soon be able to add transactional recovery using Enterprise Java Beans," which IBM plans to add by yearend.
"This is an easy environment for development and it is easily extended to the enterprise," said IBM product manager Jeff Bennett.
The computer company's vision for the open-systems-based WebSphere line is "a comprehensive, best-of-breed solution for all phases of moving to e- business, from developing to deploying and managing Web-based applications," said Paraic Sweeney, IBM vice president of Web server software marketing.
Using WebSphere, "Norwest mortgage brokers can submit loan information and check the status of a loan from our Web site 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Mr. Rae said. "WebSphere Application Server allows us to deploy and manage both Java servlets and Java Beans in a cross-platform, easy-to- use environment."