Peek Into the Future...From Your Desktop Today

In the ’60s there was a TV series called The Time Tunnel. Each week the dashing heroes would trot down a long Andy Warhol-era pop-art hallway and leap through a “Portal into the Future.” For my money, it was the hippest show around.

Today, the hippest view into the future could be sitting on your desk right now. The enterprise portal is the best evidence we now have that a genuine fundamental shift in computing is beginning to take place. And like with that fab ’60s TV show, the vision is slightly outpacing reality. For now.

Changing the Rules

There are two game-changing trends taking place that are forever altering business automation. They are separate technical advances, but they are inextricably linked together as though a single movement.

First is the emergence and growing acceptance of net-resident mission-critical applications and content. The term is “Web services,” and it is beginning to take on the sheen of a full-fledged revolution in the way business applications are created and deployed. Already it is common for businesses to consume ASP-provided services for many of their high-touch operations. So it’s not a great leap in mood—although it IS a huge upheaval in the technical foundation—to accept the model of a Web smorgasbord of business applications. Rapidly deployable, customizable and infinitely scalable assortments of mission-critical applications, robust, secure and fail-safe. A helping of ERP, a side of CRM and a little supply-chain interaction to wash it down.

This vision is not here today. The Web services market is immature. But, assuming the “little details” fall into place—standards such as SOAP (single object access protocol); UDDI (universal discovery, description and integration); WSDL (Web services description language); and the lingua franca of content-plus-application integration, XML, must be routinely applied—very little stands in the way while the prevailing client-server model is turned upside down and is replaced with something entirely new, and inarguably powerful.

Why Portals Matter

As cool as that sounds, Web services would remain a momentary bump in the road if it weren’t for yet another vital movement now taking place in business automation. For to make these lofty business initiatives come true, they must converge at the single point where value can be created from those critical apps and vital content. And that single point is the glass in front of all those complex carbon units sitting at their desks, in their airline seats and at their home desktops.

The enterprise portal is the essential final mile—hell, the final millimeter—that truly brings people together with the tools that will make them succeed.

Portal clients are already in place, delivering a personalized assortment of applications and content. Presently, they are “mere” desktop views into the local IT resources and content repositories resident in the user’s network. As such, they are little more than very cool personal organizers.

But what if ... what if those resources were not part of the local IT shop’s offerings? What if the portal were to become the client to the world’s largest operating system ... the Web itself? Suddenly ANY app from ANY location and ANY content source could converge practically at will onto the user’s desktop, laptop, whatever ... that’s the promise of portals. It’s a fantastic “what if?”.

“Portals are the first thing that finally answers the age-old question of ‘how will I ever integrate all this together,’” says Larry Bowden, VP Marketing for IBM Portals. (The fact that there even IS something called “IBM Portals,” and that it exists to use, but remain agnostic from, the many software divisions of IBM such as Lotus, Tivoli, WebSphere, etc., only underscores the mood-altering force of the portal in today’s largest enterprises.)

“The portal, the aggregation of the front-end, is the next-generation client,” Bowden declares. He draws out a scenario that is inexorably taking place right now:“I propose that in a year or two, the operating system for the Net becomes, literally, the application server. Those who are providing the infrastructure to run on, the fail-over, the security pieces will be in the application-server business, moving it out to Web, versus the client-server world.

“So, if you have this operating system that is essentially a virtual Web operating system, then what’s the client? And where are the apps? Web services are already evolving as the apps. And the client is the portal—the single point of personalized interaction with all the applications, content and processes.”

If you see that as a picture of what could occur, then it represents the biggest—-in fact, the ONLY—truly fundamental change in the way humans work with the computing tools at their disposal since client-server.

“Someone will build a portal front end that does a better job at leveraging those Web services and presenting them to the end user,” predicts Bowden, “and that someone will dominate the computing space for the foreseeable future.”

The Reality Wake-Up Call

This is big stuff, and when something like this happens, you owe it some kind of articulate response. I don’t especially have one.

Clearly, the portal has a great opportunity. It’s easy to see how a portal client will leverage an operating system (which in this case is the application server infrastructure—now resident in the local network but moving out to the Web at large). It will ultimately manage and present to the end user Web services in a form that is easily consumable, easily accessible and customized and personalized to the individual who uses them.

But in the meantime there are more local issues to deal with: how to build it, how to deploy it, how to pay for it and how to justify it. Backweb’s CEO and Chairman Eli Barkat has some opinions about that.

“The number-one reason for project failure is their inability to attract the most critical users,” Barkat says. “If we’ve learned anything in the last 10 years of IT, it is that providing passive access to information is not enough.” If you build it, they won’t come.

And in Barkat’s and Backweb’s mind, critical users are defined as the executive team and the sales force. These are not only the people who are creating the revenue for the organizations, but in the case of the executive team, they are the people who make the spending decisions. Show THEM the value, and make a difference in the way THEY do their work, and you’ve got a deal. Sublimely simple, and self-evident.

Bowden agrees that despite the inherent value in portals in general, it is important to pick your fights. “An iterative approach to implementation is the only way to go with portals. EVERY case where a company tries to do the corporatewide, all-divisions, all-function global design of a portal has failed,” he says. In other words, start small and grow.

There’s a hidden psychological factor at work, as well, says Bowden. “When other divisions or teams see the first implementation, they usually state that they only need 10% or 20% changed” to make it work for them, whereas “they would have fought to the death to convince a corporate portal task force that their requirements were totally unique.”

In Barkat’s view, it’s not only a matter of starting small, but also one of providing a critical component that is missing from most portal vendors’ basic offering: access to the portal for the disconnected user. The high-value, critical users—the executives, the line-of-business managers, the field services and sales reps—he targets have one thing in common: They are road warriors. Most of the time when they need access to critical information and applications, th

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