The twain shall meet in KM/BI mix

The twain shall meet in KM/BI mix

Hummingbird is preparing the most ambitious portal software yet, and it previewed a beta version for Paul Montgomery.

The merger of business intelligence developer Hummingbird with knowledge management specialist PC DOCS last year caused many industry watchers to sit up and take notice. Previously, the two fields represented by the two suitors had had no reason to cross each other. With the popularisation of the enterprise information portal concept, however, BI and KM are converging. The newly focused Hummingbird R&D team in Canada has spent the last eight months beavering away on moulding the separate and diverse parts of its existing applications into a portal product which is being seen as a test of the worthiness of the entire field.

Although the product will only be fully released in February, Rob Whiter, national sales manager for Australia/New Zealand for the yet-to-be-renamed PC DOCS/Fulcrum, has been showing a pre-release alpha version of the Hummingbird Enterprise Information Portal (EIP) to potential customers. The missing component of the EIP as it was demonstrated in mid-January is host access, which includes all of the unstructured data elements. BI integration is the feature that will be the most keenly examined addition, and it is also the most difficult.

Demonstrating the Hummingbird portal, Mr White showed an application that did not look much different from the integrated Windows Explorer/Internet Explorer interface which is part of Windows 98. The familiar directory tree structure on the left opens most applications and data sources in the right pane of the browser window, with only a few of the host access applications actually opening a new window, according to Mr Whiter.

The Hummingbird EIP shares much of its interface design with Microsoft's Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer.

"One of the criticisms of DOCS/Fulcrum is that it is very difficult to turn into a useable application. The users either produced something technical which no one liked, or they employed graphic artists to design a site which didn't have the [ease of use]," he said. "It's almost like we've turned it into myYahoo! on the top of DOCSFulcrum."

Users can browse through diverse data sources through simply pointing and clicking within the directories, without changing applications or needing to return to the desktop of the operating system. The file-and-folder metaphor can also be taken back to its roots by removing all mention of applications and organising the knowledge along conceptual lines.

This iconoclastic departure from the traditional PC look and feel, most of which stems from the PC DOCS heritage, is also helped by "single sign-on" technology inherited from Hummingbird's host access products.

"Through the common authentication protocol, you don't see me logging on to any of these applications, because it has been made seamless," said Mr Whiter.

The technology which is holding the EIP together is a proprietary plug-in model called e-Clip. This is a set of application program interfaces (APIs) which allow developers to integrate data from external applications to the EIP. Hummingbird has published the specification for building e-Clips, and is hoping that companies will share around their e-Clips through a community Web site, along with e-Clips Hummingbird has made freely available for various popular applications. As part of its support of the Extensible Mark-up Language metadata standard, the company will also publish the document type definitions (DTDs) which it uses to exchange data between applications on its Web site. The concept follows the "Gadget" model used by US-based pioneering portal vendor Plumtree Software. It is similar in theory to Oracle's "portlet" concept, and Microsoft's version of "nodes", built from HTML, JavaScript and VBScript, is also analogous (see Image & Data Manager, November/December 1999, pages 18 and 16 respectively.

To start with, there are e-Clips for each search engine, and also for email servers to enable Hotmail, Exchange and Notes messages to be combined in a Web client viewable through the EIP. Mr Whiter said Hummingbird's ambition was to enter the groupware space currently inhabited by Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes and Open Text Livelink. However, Hummingbird would not concentrate on "messaging-based" groupware as these applications do, but on more KM-influenced features such as using its Genio software to "model information flow to see where the creative centres are" within an organisation, according to Mr Whiter. This is similar to the "expertise locator" in Lotus' upcoming Raven application.

"Our next big development extension is to expand the ability to use collaborative tools," he said. "We have the potential to upset Microsoft and Lotus. Then we will have the option to tie our system to either of them, or go it alone."

The Hummingbird EIP is perhaps the most striking example yet of how the portal could subvert the established paradigm of client/server computing, and replace the need for PCs with costly fast processors and local hard drives with the newer model of the Network Computer (NC), with barely more than a keyboard and monitor. Mr Whiter predicted that the traditional fat client on Microsoft systems would disappear entirely before the end of the year, to be replaced by browser plug-ins.

"There is no questions that there are aspects of this system that are operating system-like, like the single log on," he said. "This is no different to what [Oracle CEO] Larry Ellison was doing with the NC, but we're doing it on Wintel."