If society is growing more impersonal, at least there is the consolation that computer networks seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Over the past five years, networking environments--the Web being a prime example--have been falling over themselves to mirror the interests and character of their users as closely as possible. If a site proves personable it becomes sticky--meaning users keep coming back--or so the theory goes. And new tools that offer everything from storage areas for correspondence to online collaboration with other visitors hope to make sites more attractive than ever.
The first and most basic of the techniques employed to this end was so-called pick-and-click personalisation: Users simply chose a subset of features (news feeds, stock quotes, TV listings and such) that would appear on their logon page each time they visited the site.
Such features are now common (MyYahoo.com, MyExcite.com and a host of other my sites all use them), but more elaborate forms of personalisation are beginning to appear. The latest advances offer visitors storage and processing resources--virtual offices--for their partners to use as they like. These offices might be used to create, process, and store files and applications; host real-time meetings; or to pursue relationships with other partners besides the one hosting the site.
There are other advantages as well. These sites tend to focus on specific business environments by providing a variety of tools designed to help customers get their jobs done. Such services dovetail nicely with the trend toward mobile computing, which emphasises resource access from any device anywhere instead of being tied to a given computer. And it's not just a one-way street: The customer gets the services, but the hosting company profits by giving its visitors more reasons to return to its site, thus boosting traffic flow and multiplying opportunities to collect useful information or make sales.
Virtual offices can offer all kinds of services but data storage is high on most lists. A number of sites let customers store and review shipping and fulfilment data, order histories, registries or wish lists, and "buy later" lists, which at the extreme can become personal catalogues with custom pricing.
Customers at Dow Chemical in Midland, Mich., for instance, can register for MyAccount@Dow sites where they can monitor order processing, track delivery (an important feature in the case of rail freight, since boxcars actually can get lost), develop and store order profiles, and archive service requests, solutions and general feedback.
According to Mary Jo Piper, eBusiness Global Communications Leader at Dow, some MyAccount@Dow customers actually use their virtual offices to track and manage their own inventories. (The supply chain in chemical engineering is so well-instrumented now that it can be more convenient for purchasing managers to monitor inventory, which might be spread over dozens of locations world-wide, through their suppliers' data systems rather than through their own.) Dow's virtual offices will soon support file sharing, says Piper, which will allow groups--either inside or among companies--to pursue collaborations with Dow and each other. The services are apparently quite popular; Piper expects half of the company's partners will be using these online offices by the end of the year.
Dow isn't alone. IBM Corp. has a similar initiative called "e-sites." These specialised mini-sites let the company's larger customers store order status data, order histories, sales information, technical drawings, support correspondence, contact lists (which, in the case of IBM contacts, automatically update as jobs change) and global financing documents. The e-sites also support industry and corporate-level news feeds and e-commerce tools, including catalogues with custom pricing and order configurators.
Steve Biondi, a sales executive for IBM.com in Armonk, N.Y. (the division responsible for e-sites), points out that order configuration in the corporate space is a lot more complicated than purchases by consumers because the relationship between buyer and vendor is much more complex. For instance, the configurator needs to know whether the buyer has a technical-support outsourcing contract with the seller or a partner of the seller and whether a given product configuration is included under that agreement. It also needs to know whether different departments within the same company operate under different guidelines. By personalising the configurator, a corporate buyer can make purchases secure with the knowledge that the items will meet company requirements.
For The Little Guy
The growing number of tools and services offered by application service providers (ASPs) makes it possible for even smaller companies--without the resources of Dow or IBM--to offer such services. For example, San Francisco-based Idrive.com sells processing and storage services that other businesses can buy and redistribute under their own names on their own sites.
Online storage may not sound like much on its own, but in context it can become immensely useful. Idrive.com customer About.com--a New York City-based advice site devoted to topics such as cars, pets, sports and more--uses the storage to let customers keep a personal scrapbook. Content on the About.com subsites can turn over rapidly, making one post or thread difficult to locate and retrieve over time. To help, About.com lets customers save any page (whether from inside About.com or from the Web in general) to their own file space, thereby guaranteeing the content will be accessible. Users can also make their collections available to anyone. If they wish, they can even configure their virtual office to accept contributions from other About.com users.
Other Idrive.com customers use the virtual storage for different purposes.
Homestead.com in Menlo Park, Calif., lets visitors collaborate in the design and development of websites; compile graphic, music and text archives; and jointly maintain group calendars. Similarly, The New York Times Learning Network gives its teachers virtual spaces where they can create and store educational materials and then open these spaces to their students.
Face To Face
Idrive.com is an example of asynchronous collaboration: Users enter and use the spaces without knowing or caring if other users are sharing the same space at the same time. Other ASPs, such as San Jose, Calif.-based Webex Inc., go further and support real-time interaction, which allows for even more intimate connections.
For example, Webex customer McGettigan Partners in Philadelphia organises more than 2,000 business conferences, shows and exhibitions each year. And each of them requires a plethora of meetings involving long lists of partners, clients, suppliers, employees, freelancers and attendees. With Webex's real-time whiteboard and group-editing features, McGettigan can now arrange these meetings in online collaborative spaces--virtual offices--instead of via conference calls and airline travel.
Virtual offices don't have to directly involve the providing company, either.
Some companies are building spaces that support collaborations among their users' partners rather than directly between the host and the user. It's not driven by altruism, of course. Such sites hope that opportunities rise with traffic; good things happen to those who put themselves at the centre of the action; and, in the long run, what is good for your customers is good for you.
San Francisco-based Buzzsaw.com is a good example. The site provides online services to the construction industry, from marketplaces to building and project management tools. To keep customers coming back to the site, Buzzsaw.com provides "Project Workspaces" in which all those associated with a given project--from client to construction manager to architect to contractor to supplier--can exchange designs, submit changes, examine version histories, look at part and project specifications, and more. The services are free for small projects and relatively inexpensive even for larger ones. But the benefits to customers can be enormous.
"It will completely retool the construction industry," says Jeffrey Terrell, principal at Robertson, Miller, Terrell Architects in Vail, Colo. Terrell is currently using Buzzsaw.com's services to help build a resort, and he says that the site has proven extremely valuable for keeping everyone--from architect to local political authorities--in the loop. What used to take faxes, phone calls, photocopies and overnight deliveries is now as easy as e-mail and a Web browser.
Certainly not every company will need--or want--to offer high-end personalisation services such as collaboration. But examples like Buzzsaw.com and McGettigan suggest that most companies need to at least consider the possibility. And as such services evolve and expand, we could move into a future where companies compete to see who can offer the most useful operating environment, not only for their direct customers and partners, but their partners' partners as well. If so, CIOs may face a new but pleasant problem: whose gifts to accept.
Fred Hapgood is a buzz vector and intellectual property provider serving from Boston. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Instant ASP Access
Point, click, connect. That's the claim behind netExs' new Web application development tool for Windows, ASP+. According to the company, nonprogrammers can quickly build online applications that connect to back-end OLEDB and ODBC databases, including Microsoft Access 95 through 2000, Oracle 7.3 and higher, Sybase 11.0, SQL Database 6.5 and above, Informix and more. With the product, developers can determine page layout, report structure, security and more--without intervention from the IT department. Pricing starts at $845.
Potential customers can also request a free, 15-day trial version. For more information or to receive the free trial, visit www.netexs.com or call 262 569-8922.
Need a new tool to monitor the performance of your online commerce site? Visual Insights thinks you do. The company's new reporting tool--eBizinsights--uses three-dimensional, interactive, real-time graphics to help simplify complex information about activity on your sites. The product also saves historical data about site visitors to a Microsoft SQL 7 or 2000 database (which customers must buy separately). Users can then use the data to generate reports that they can publish on the Web or an intranet. The package comes with more than 150 predefined reports or users can create their own. Pricing starts at $995. For more information, visit www.visualinsights.com or call 630 753-8600.
What Do You Want?
Help your customers make good choices and the odds are that you'll see more sales. To assist your customers, FourthChannel offers Profitbuilder, a service that asks buyers a series of questions to guide them to the products they need and provides core transaction services. A browser-based interface lets FourthChannel customers configure business rules and other options without programming and without hosting the application locally. Pricing starts at US $15,000 a month plus services. For more information, visit www.fourthchannel.com or call 888 554-3537.
Fast, Easy Ethernet
Kingston Technology Co.--best known for its memory upgrade products--has entered the USB peripheral market with the Fast EtheRX 10/100 USB Adapter. The product plugs into a USB port on any machine running Windows 98 or 2000 and provides quick connectivity to 10/100Mbps Ethernet networks without opening the computer's case or taking up a PC Card slot. The adapter comes with a lifetime warranty and free technical support. The suggested retail price for the product is US $79. For more information, visit www.kingston.com/peripherals or call 800 435-2620.
Extensible markup language (XML) is a revolution in Web application creation, so it makes sense that XML editors would go through some evolutionary changes of their own. To that end, SoftQuad Software has released XMetaL 2.0, which aims to ease the creation of XML and standard generalised markup language (SGML) documents. The software includes editing interfaces such as an attribute inspector, macro capability and the ability to access remote document type definitions (DTD). Retail pricing for new users is US $495. Registered owners of previous versions can upgrade for US $75. Formore information, visit www.softquad.com or call 800 387-2777.
Riscs Not Taken
Reduced instruction set computing merges with the mainstream As a rule, we here at CIO are a sober crowd. We've seen too many "insanely great" technologies to go dancing in the streets with each new paradigm shift.
Too many of these wonders seem to never deliver on their promise.
Occasionally, however, we do fall in love. Eight years ago, on April 1, 1992, we published an article on a new kind of computing philosophy that was "turning the computer industry on its ear" and was going to have a "huge impact on how businesses approach IS." The idea that got us so excited was not a new business application but an attitude about hardware architecture: reduced instruction set computing (RISC).
RISC proponents espoused the philosophy that people should always build (and buy) chips that used the smallest practical number of the simplest operations.
Such chips would be cheaper, run more quickly and consume less power, experts claimed. Their simplicity would also make it easier for programmers to achieve a more intimate connection between hardware and software, allowing swifter innovation cycles and reducing processing costs more quickly than ever.
The call for RISC arose in response to a trend to load chips with features designed to handle specific tasks. This was akin to building a typewriter with dedicated keys for each of the most common thousand or so words or phrases.
Whenever users needed to type "empowers e-commerce" or "end-to-end solution," all they would have to do is press a single key.
One argument for taking this path had been the fear--widespread in the '70s--that the United States was going to run out of programmers, and the resulting rise in software costs was going to destroy the industry. The answer: Make programmers more productive by letting them write more instructions at once. Toward that end, chip designers started to build the most common groups of instructions right into the silicon so that a single software instruction could trigger a group of other instructions. Thus complex instruction set computing (CISC) was born.
In the '80s, however, the RISC reform movement sprang up to argue that the programmer crisis had been overblown. There was no research, the reformers said, showing that adding complicated instructions did anything for productivity. And gunking up chips with what engineers like to call cruft (useless features that add nothing but complexity) imposed its own drag on performance.
Unfortunately by then, the library of programs that had been written for CISC hardware--most prominently Intel Corp.'s X86 family of processors--had grown too large to be abandoned lightly, and the advantages of RISC hardware were not quite attractive enough to pay the price of switching over. (Engineering folklore states that a new technology has to be 10 times better than a legacy technology to be accepted as a replacement.) The RISC reform movement accepted this as a challenge, not a constraint, and in the late '80s the so-called instruction set wars raged on in newsgroups, magazines and mailing lists. The RISC side claimed to speak for core engineering values: clarity, economy, efficiency and speed. CISC, meanwhile, represented "suit values" (though often the terms applied were less polite): prudence, wringing value from existing investment and the importance of respecting business models based on proprietary software environments. As often happens, the engineers won the debates but lost the marketplace. RISC chips appeared from IBM Corp., Mips, Motorola Inc., Digital Equipment Corp. and others, but Intel Corp.'s X86 architecture dominated sales.
Complex chips had more than just piles of legacy software in their corner: As technology inexorably advanced, chip surface areas grew, providing even more space for extra functions. Eventually, even the chips being sold under the RISC philosophy often came loaded with special features. Many observers started to believe that, in the words of J. Stokes from an article in online magazine Ars Technica, "current architectures are a hodgepodge of features that embody a variety of trends and design approaches, some RISC, some CISC and some neither.
In the post-RISC era, it no longer makes sense to divide the world into RISC and CISC camps." That might appear to be the closing curtain on this debate, but Stokes doesn't speak for everyone. Take, for instance, David Ditzel, CEO of Transmeta in Santa Clara, Calif., whose celebrated Crusoe chip marks a rebirth of the RISC vision.
While Crusoe is compatible with legacy programs, it gets that compatibility by executing the complicated instructions of modern chips in software. Underneath, in the atomic world, Crusoe is something every engineer appreciates: a simple, clear, elegant design cranked until she runs like something out of Star Trek.
If all RISC had been like this, maybe it actually would have turned the industry on its ear.
Application Service Providers
The Future of ASPs
Is there an Empty IT shop in your future? Perhaps not before tomorrow's coffee break, but according to a recent report by the Aberdeen Group, application service providers (ASPs) have begun to chip away at services commonly hosted and managed in-house--and the trend isn't going to stop anytime soon.
"Users are disenchanted by complexity, expensive and lengthy system/application deployments, incremental productivity gains and incessant technology change. They are increasingly shifting away from decentralised, locally hosted computing toward a new, network-based environment in which a new generation of second-party service providers will eventually assume most, if not all, of the responsibilities for providing IT solutions," claims the report, written by Senior Analyst Lew Hollerbach.
The ASP market will also continue to subdivide into various types of providers, ranging from extensions of current businesses, such as communications carriers, independent software vendors and computer platform suppliers--all of which will have to find ways to support their emerging ASP customers--to entirely new enterprises. Two of those newcomers--the integrating ASP and the Internet business service provider (IBSP)--are just now arriving. Integrating ASPs (such as USinternetworking and Corio) combine a variety of ASP services from different vendors under one umbrella and retain responsibility for the management of them all. IBSPs, according to the report, will do even more--combining ASP services targeting traditional IT responsibilities with other services, such as bookkeeping and shipping, into a single-source solution for vertical markets and market segments.
The report concludes that ASPs don't have a totally open road ahead of them, however. Successful ventures in the market will require solutions that scale rapidly to meet customer needs, maintain high reliability and prove cost-effective. Customers will also demand trustworthy security and privacy if they are to start running critical corporate functions on someone else's servers.
Then there's the fear issue. "I think there will be a tremendous reeducation needed to reposition CIOs and CTOs as thinkers, as strategists, as relationship managers rather than old-line project managers," Hollerbach says. The education has already begun, and Hollerbach notes that some companies--particularly new dotcoms and the like--are already comfortable with the ASP model. And it's only a matter of time--and not a very long time--before everyone else climbs on board.
Not long ago, if you wanted to view a digital video or listen to an audio file on a website, you had to download the entire thing before you could hear a note or see a single frame--a time-consuming process given the size of many digital media files. Then came streaming media (RealNetworks' RealAudio and RealVideo, for instance), which lets users listen to audio or watch video without the wait. Pieces of the file play as they arrive, providing good-quality reproduction even over slow connections.
Until recently, however, streaming worked only with data files, not with applications. To get a new version of Internet Explorer via your 56Kbps modem, for example, you had to wait an hour or more while the whole program downloaded. And even after all that, you'd still need to install the new app and boot it up. But now AppStream in Palo Alto has figured out how to apply streaming media's just-in-time approach to applications, letting customers use apps almost as soon as they begin the download.
Creating streaming applications wasn't easy. Sound and video files tend to be linear; the first parts appear at the beginning of the file, the last near the end. The code needed to run the first few minutes of an application, however, might reside anywhere in a file. To get around this problem, AppStream first divides the instructions in a program into numbered segments. It then runs the program and watches to see when the various segments execute. Finally, when someone downloads the file, AppStream transmits the segments in order of execution. Better yet, the company's technique works with any program and doesn't require access to the application's source code.
The application service provider (ASP) sector--and its customers--is likely to be one of the biggest winners from this technology. Elytics.com in Cambridge, Mass., which provides software for analysing e-commerce traffic in real-time in order to predict online customer behaviour, prefers to deliver its services via a Java applet. Previously, however, the applet was too large to be a convenient download for customers. In response, the company wrote a smaller HTML client but one that didn't match the better performance of the Java version. With AppStream's software, however, Elytics.com CEO Jon Christensen thinks that anyone will now be able to use the Java version, both improving customer experience and allowing his company to concentrate development efforts on a single platform.
Streaming apps' shadow may even fall beyond the ASP sector. With the technology, developers no longer need to worry about whether users have a proper client or viewer on their system--the data and its application can stream together, simultaneously. And tools that make life easier for both developer and user have a head start on success.