Walmart (NYSE:WMT) is taking a different approach to speeding up its e-commerce site's performance: personalized service. On Wednesday (July 24) the retail giant said it has acquired Torbit, an on-the-fly optimization startup, to become part of its Walmart Labs operation in Silicon Valley.
The Torbit tools can do conventional site monitoring, but the company's real strength is in its technology to dynamically optimize a site for whatever platform the customer is using—desktop, smartphone or tablet. That should significantly improve load times for customers, since it's the Walmart servers that will make adjustments to content instead of the online shopper's browser.
The on-the-fly optimization approach is more important for retailers than for most websites because optimizing pages in advance has all but disappeared from large e-commerce sites. There aren't any "pages"—just templates and databases, with engines that assemble pages customized for specific customers as they're required.
That means the simplest way of optimizing for phones or tablets is to tweak the templates those engines use, and online retailers have been doing that since the days when Netscape and Microsoft's Internet Explorer first started to fragment web browsers. But "simplest" is a relative thing: With the number of devices, operating systems, browsers, screen sizes and resolutions available, tweaking templates is no longer practical.
An alternative is to break regular and mobile browsers into two completely different systems. But unless a retailer is willing to do twice as much work or make one version a second-class citizen (which is no longer acceptable for mobile), that's a steadily less workable solution.
The real question for Walmart will come when the retailer begins to scale up the Torbit technology for production use. Taking workload off customers' phones, tablets and PCs and doing it in Walmart's data center is simple in concept—those servers are a lot more powerful than any phone or PC. But adding all that work together and getting it all done for the fourth-largest e-commerce site means a lot more data-center expense unless the optimizing software is specially optimized for Walmart. No wonder they bought the company.
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