While most of the industry is still getting used to the idea of electronic commerce, some are looking further down the road. A subcommittee of the Product Identification and Communications Committee (PICC)-the group that handles electronic commerce issues for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), Rosslyn, Va.-is taking a look at two issues that are still on the horizon.

Unofficially dubbed "The Virtual Group" by its chairman, Ben Lazar, manager of electronic services for Hubbell, Inc., Milford, Conn., the subcommittee is studying the details of EDI via the Internet and the use of virtual networks to coordinate inventory and other back-office functions among distributors, manufacturers and reps.

Historically, most EDI has been done over direct, secure connections between customer (or distributor) and supplier. With the rise of the Internet and the spread of standard software for sending and receiving data across it, Lazar says it only makes sense to adapt EDI for use across the Internet itself. Some companies already have begun exchanging data with distributors over the Internet. A set of standards for EDI via the Internet would enable distributors to communicate with any of their suppliers and customers through one connection, using the same software and the same transaction sets. From there, it's just a matter of linking that standardized data into each company's business system for a seamless flow of information throughout the market channel.

Distributors whose operations are heavily computerized have a bunch of information at their fingertips on their own operations, but if they want to know something about their suppliers' inventory or pricing levels, they must establish a separate connection (whether by phone, fax or EDI) and receive the data in the manufacturer's format. The better solution, says Lazar, would be for the distributor to have access to a "virtual private network"-or a secure site on the Internet from which his computer automatically could receive data from his manufacturers and update the distributor's system.

For both projects, the subcommittee's first concern is security. It's beginning with Internet security guidelines developed by the National Institute on Standards and Testing (NIST) and will build proposed standards for sending and receiving secure data.

The subcommittee's work, most of which is done via e-mail, is addressing subjects that in the past individual companies have undertaken, but Lazar believes making a standard up front will bring these communication functions to market more quickly and efficiently.