The biggest problem with the development of IT is in the way that it is sold. Every new invention is packaged as some sort of miracle cure, but is soon succeeded by another generation of technology that promises to deliver the real benefits which, for some unexplained reason, the last one never delivered.
Some IT publications that focus on end users have all the objectivity of slimming magazines. It's ironic that the IT channel is frequently accused of cynicism when, by presenting such hopelessly optimistic views of technology to customers, it is vendors that are the cynics.
Portal technology is one example. This revolution is supposed to sweep everything before it and deliver the right information to everyone's desktop. As resellers, you may have already committed to two generations of internet technology that have promised to do this. And failed. But don't worry, this time the vendors have got it right and you won't end up alienating your clients by selling them something that fails to live up to promise.
Conventional wisdom says the smart money is on portals. Industry analysts (who have never been wrong before) are recommending it. One analyst's report states: "Portal technology will give us the new user interface paradigm that finally begins to address the information access needs of IT users in the year 2000."
In fact, the report claims that portal technology has "gripped the imagination of IT users and vendors ever since the popularisation of the concept in 1998. Portal technology will change the face of IT". Will it indeed?
Ovum Research predicts that by next year, 54 per cent of businesses will have a portal in place. Surely that means in a few months we will wake up and find ourselves in a brave new world of information?
All the employees of a company will find themselves empowered with relevant intelligence drawn from disparate data sources, all served up on a user-friendly interface. This, to use the jargon of a slimming magazine, will leave your corporation leaner and fitter and make your business processes feel years younger. You will soon firm up your workforce and trim pounds off your bottom line.
However, throughout these presentations, users must be asking themselves the same question over again and again: Isn't that what they promised the intranet would do a couple of years ago?
This is not so, says Noel Coloe, European vice-president at portal software company Linq, one of the new breed of IT developers. "A common problem businesses find with their corporate intranets is that users cannot find the relevant information they need, so they either give up or spend all their time searching. Besides, the information gets out of date very quickly and it is hard for people to add value to the content on the intranet," says Coloe.
This begs the question: how likely is it that portals will not be the final word in IT? Eric Woods, analyst at Ovum, admits there is every likelihood. "No vendor has yet deployed a completely satisfactory workplace portal solution. But the underlying requirement is a real one and several are making convincing progress towards doing so," he says.
Ovum estimates the portal market will be worth about $7bn (£4.9bn) by 2005 in what it calls the 'portal mix', which is about using different portal technologies to build an integrated business platform. In other words, they are using technology developed for the internet to make the management of information within companies more efficient. Again, this sounds remarkably similar to what the intranet was supposed to achieve.
In fact, practically every vendor worth its salt is in the portal business. It is massively overcrowded, which at least shows how important it is to develop a better interface and personalised information delivery system.
Last month, Computer Associates (CA) jumped on the enterprise portal bandwagon with the launch of its Jasmine ii Portal, which it claims will give access to content from diverse sources, including non-web documents, and offer strong personalisation options.
Sanjay Kumar, chief executive of CA, said at the launch: "Unlike most corporate portals that just give you general information, we will bring together business applications, enterprise data sources, email and groupware while supporting internet standards such as Java, XML and HTML."
This sounds remarkably similar to what all the other portal vendors are trying to achieve. "We don't see the portal as another tool, but as the workplace of tomorrow," says Kumar.
CA's entry into this market is significant because it endorses the pioneering work of smaller infrastructure companies such as Seven Mountains, Hummingbird and Plumtree. Woods says these firms have the potential to steal significant market share from the Microsofts and CAs of the world, because it will take the giants months to get their acts together in the workspace portal sector.
If you are a partner of IBM/Lotus, Oracle or SAP, the news is even better, because these vendors have significant portal technology offerings. "These companies could gain a considerable degree of control over the corporate desktop," says Woods.
Smaller companies such as Seven Mountains have the advantage of being completely legacy-free and, being new entrants to the UK market, have a completely unspoilt channel. Seven Mountains, for example, has a single partner in the UK, Peapod, and is looking for reseller/integration partners with experience of multiple platforms.
Patrick Coates, managing director, says: "There is no hidden agenda with us, because we do not have to protect a customer base steeped in a previous generation of technology.
"Everything we do is in Java which can link into all the old stuff. What we need is people who have experience of dealing with different platforms - mainframes, Unix and so on - and have the know-how to extract data from them. If you know enough Java to install an application programming interface into a system, your knowledge of your customers' systems could be useful to us."
Useful, as long as you don't oversell the scope of the technology, that is. The problem with previous generations of technology is that expectations are raised which cannot be fulfilled, says Coates. Intranet technology was an interim step towards the benefits that enterprise portals will deliver.
"In the end, what most people discovered about the intranet was that it was a great way of publishing information internally, but putting your company phone book online wasn't quite the killer application that people expected the technology to deliver," he says.
"If you can suspend your cynicism, you can see that it did provide a good foundation for what we can deliver now."
In the know
Coates says the difference that end-users should know is that the intranet was about the 'information corporation'. Now we are moving into the era of the 'knowledge corporation', which means that people do more clever things with the management of knowledge. It's not just about the data but the tools you use to work with it.
An enterprise portal should really be sold on the strength of ability to improve business processes. "The intranet was about information, but the portal is about application. For example, when a new person joins a company, that usually sets the IT department back at least half a day, because someone has to set up the new user, install applications for them and so forth," says Coates.
"With an enterprise portal, it is feasible to make this a function of the human resources department, given the tighter control that a Java-based machine would have. They can be given the power to grant access to applications. This makes one department solely responsible for changes and vastly improves the business process."
The way to sell the idea of an enterprise portal, says Coates, is that it is like an application service provider (ASP) but within the company. Instead of getting a third party to manage your applications, which would make the IT department redundant, the systems personnel should adopt the same principles as an ASP and apply them to the way it provides services to different users within a company.
It would make sense to become a 'home-made' ASP anyway. Firstly, ASPs do not work out to be any cheaper than an IT department. David Caruso, director of AMR Research, says: "In the US, they had to revise the way ASPs were sold, because the skills premium wasn't cut when firms started using outside expertise."
Secondly, the reservations that IT departments have about ASPs, namely the lack of control and the legal practicalities of enforcing service-level agreements, would be eliminated overnight if the technology were brought in-house. Also, any savings made by cutting back on IT personnel would be nullified by the extra money that would be spent persuading lawyers to pore over the multiple service contracts that are struck with ASPs.
This puts the IT department back in control. Systems staff no longer simply install systems for different departments with no idea about who makes the greatest demands on applications and bandwidth and processing power. Enterprise portal technology would enable IT staff to install these systems and control their usage, billing departments according to their use of the IT.
If ASP technology is great, but the arrangement isn't, then customers will want someone to provide ASP technology they can manage in-house.
There must be a gap in the market opening up soon, since almost all ASPs are making losses and most of them are quickly running out of cash. Surely, when the first ASPs begin to bite the bust, there will be plenty of technology assets to be stripped from them. If Boo.com's system could be snapped up for £250,000, what price an ASP's systems, when they can be sold to corporations as enterprise portal solutions?
Coates admits that it is exactly the same principle, except when compared with the costs of implementing a corporate portal. Analyst Gartner claims that a typical rollout costs £750,000 and takes at least six months to set up. It hardly sounds like an ASP, which is supposed to be cheap and easy to install.
It is far better to use a third party that has done all this before. According to Greg Darmohray, head of European sales at business-to-business application developer Webridge, enterprise portal integrators have to emphasise this principle.
"Custom code is a bad investment. Customers' money should not be wasted by building infrastructures. They should get it out of the box, or the next best thing, from a supplier," he says.
Darmohray argues that it would be a cheaper if companies used common building blocks on which they could run projects. Customisation and incremental changes could come later. Darmohray claims those building blocks should be Windows NT architecture, but there are other foundations to a system.
The enterprise portal market also seems to have a lot of other similarities to the intranet market that preceded it. Intranets used technology for the internet to make the internal dissemination of information more easy.
Similarly, enterprise portals use technology originally intended for internet portals and later ASPs to make management of information and applications more efficient.
The biggest drawback of enterprise portal technology is that it is out of step with the development of many companies. As more organisations try to make their information technology extend to their increasingly disparate workforce, they will have to find a way to push information out to remote and mobile users.
The problem with this is that mobile portals are years from being developed. You cannot have a complete enterprise information strategy without a mobile technology portal up and running. This is where this new technology offering hits its first snag.
Katrina Bond, researcher at Analysys and lead author of the study Mobile Portals and ASPs, says: "Mobile portals face considerable technical challenges which restrict the sophistication of services that can be offered."
Oh dear. Looks like it's back to the drawing board.
- Intranet technology was designed to deliver information more efficiently within companies using techniques borrowed from the internet.
- After initial reservations, intranet technology settled down to be a system for publishing phone directories online.
- The technology for internet portals is being used for a host of new applications. One of these is as an enterprise portal, delivering information more efficiently within the companies.
- The enterprise portal market promises to be a multi-billion-pound market.
- Massive amounts of project work will be generated for resellers and integrators who can make sense of the disparate corporate systems.
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