ERCIM News No.30 - July 1997

COBRA Project Prototypes: e-commerce Brokering System based on inFOCUS

by Jürgen Marock

The COBRA project, funded by the European Union, has chosen the inFOCUS system (interactive Feature-Oriented Catalog USer) developed at GMD's Institute for Applied Information Technology as a major component of its four international pilot applications of distributed online resource brokerage. Commercial distribution of inFOCUS is being negotiated.

Electronic commerce may lead to more rational, well-informed buying of high-value consumer products or services. As a prerequisite, new information services for the consumer will have to be created. They must combine the classical function of brokers with a spectrum of value-adding services that allow product comparisons across vendors on the level of technical features, price, availability etc, and provide information on product evaluations from different sources, like consumer organisations, environmentalist groups, the trade press, independent maintenance and repair shops, current users of a product.

The COBRA project in which GMD is involved (cf. ERCIM News No. 27, p. 37; ( focuses on this new breed of distributed online brokerage service. It aims to provide architectural recommendations and interface standards for information systems which will allow brokers to effectively play their extended intermediary role. Later this year, COBRA will have a prototype system ready for first pilot trials. It is obvious that for broad acceptance of this system, the user interface provided to search various catalogues and to select the products or services with the desired combination of features, price and availability is the critical element. Here COBRA has chosen the inFOCUS system ( developed at GMD's Institute for Applied Information Technology.

inFOCUS can take databases of several thousand objects, eg, different models in a product category, and hundreds of attributes of each product and displays them in an interactive table. This table maps the whole database in a format that the user is used to work with, as it closely mimics what he is likely to know from the printed media. With a few intuitive point-and-click actions the user can re-arrange this table, sort and cluster objects based on ranges of attribute values and find the objects that match her or his set of criteria. Although this selection might be equivalent to a fairly complex boolean query, with inFOCUS it does not require the know-how of an information specialist.

As the user sees the result of any particular action immediately represented in the table, can easily undo any action and focus in on different attributes and their values, he can explore the full range of alternatives and understand which requirements critically limit the set of options available. Each element in the table may be hyperlinked to additional information in a database or Web page. This allows the broker to provide additional information on specific products or services, or on an attribute and its values, as a value-adding service that improves his competitive position.

A PC-based version of inFOCUS was presented at CeBIT'97 in Hannover as search interface to the ELFI information brokering service ( It drews quite a few very positive reactions. Within the second quarter, a Java-based Reader version will be available. It can easily be distributed across the Web to the machines of a broker's clients together with the database. This database would be created by the broker using the fully-featured Publisher version of inFOCUS.

A license for world-wide commercial distribution of inFOCUS is being negotiated with humanIT GmbH (, one of the high-tech companies in GMD's TechnoPark in Sankt Augustin.

Please contact:

Christoph G. Thomas ­ GMD
Tel: +49 2241 14 2640

Hans-Günther Lindner ­ humanIT GmbH
Tel: +49 2241 14 2976

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