Through the looking glass

Through the looking glass

Windows is the dominant platform of computing, but it is being challenged by the corporate portal concept. Paul Montgomery investigates how Microsoft has responded.

Netscape was once a real threat to the Microsoft way of computing. The Navigator Web browser presented a credible alternative to the Windows interface in the mid-90s, with its promise of freedom from the costly desktop-bound fat clients of the client/server paradigm. Microsoft has now seen off that threat with its own solution, setting off an anti-trust trial in the process.

The enterprise information portal is a more subtle concept, but nevertheless it also represents a new way of interacting with data. Even more dangerous to Microsoft is the fact that the portal is aimed directly at corporate users, not the consumer masses.

Praxa's dashboard, called Corporate ECG, won Microsoft's inaugural competition with its solution for the health industry.

Microsoft's reaction to this new phenomenon - an idea called the "Digital Dashboard" - was initially treated as another battleground in the company's continuing fight against Lotus Development. The Outlook Today feature within Microsoft's Exchange messaging application was nominated as the "prototype" of the Digital Dashboard, which was not quite equivalent to the corporate portal, but was definitely close enough to invite comparisons.

The evolution of the digital dashboard, both within Microsoft and in the hands of partners who have used the Digital Dashboard Start Kit, has progressed to the point where it can be talked of as a cogent response to the corporate portal.

The dashboard is now a part of a new piece of terminology devised by Microsoft, the "Business Internet", to describe its vision of how technology solutions will be constructed inside an organisation. This replaces the Digital Nervous System concept, which Ross Dembecki, lead product manager for enterprise products at Microsoft Australia, admitted was not well understood outside the company.

"Our spin on knowledge management is to boost technology that helps the knowledge worker," he said. "We can have a much broader effect on knowledge workers' lives if we can improve the way people use technology."

"People will still be carrying their own processing power and data stores for a long while yet."

Mr Dembecki said the Business Internet idea comprised three types of functions within an organisation - commerce, knowledge management and business operations.

"You get data from commerce and business operations, and you let your knowledge workers extend that information into their knowledge management [practices]," he said.

The Business Internet consists of four layers of information and applications: personal, team, corporate and external. The personal area is where Microsoft's strength lies, in desktop applications suites like Office, Front Page, and of course Windows itself.

"For a lot of companies which have standardised on Office, they don't want to have to buy a new desktop infrastructure," said Mr Dembecki. "[Employees] go to Outlook, and all of the stuff they want to see is there. They don't want to know how the information was presented, the point is that it is a single application."

The team aspect, which Mr Dembecki admitted had been where Microsoft trailed Lotus, has been strengthened with the Grizzly and Polar developments, which are now relatively anonymous behind-the-scenes components of Exchange and SQL Server.

"Workflow is tough, but even collaboration [is not easy]," said Mr Dembecki. "We could do it, we could build applications to compete with Lotus. Where Lotus could always get a lot of mind share was where it could walk in and say it could install a solution in a week."

The corporate layer covers everything from the intranet to line of business applications. This is where integration is the key word for builders of portal-type applications, particularly between structured data from relational databases and unstructured data from flat files in document management systems. Few vendors have achieved this goal so far.

"We have a bridge to incorporate business intelligence content into our knowledge management, which is a big difference to our unnamed but significant other competitor," Mr Dembecki quipped.

The final part of the Business Internet concept, the external layer, covers e-commerce and other customer-centric activities.

Mr Dembecki said a lot of employees who can now be classified as knowledge workers had to be a lot more flexible and mobile in their workplace, and thus made use of portable technologies like palm top PCs and notebooks.

"If you're talking about somewhere like a call centre, then thin clients are good, but if you're talking about employees with unpredictable work environments, we don't see thin clients solving these people's problems," he said. "These people will still be carrying their own processing power and data stores for a long while yet."

This thinking would particularly extend to members of a mobile sales force. Mr Dembecki stressed that Microsoft had been doing a lot of work in trying to embed Windows in mobile devices, using a cut-down version of the OS called Windows CE, as it realised that Internet technologies like the Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) would change these employees' work habits.

"If mobile phone users are getting their sport and weather from the Internet, pretty soon they are going to think, why can't I get information from my intranet as well?" he said.

In the end, it is too early to tell whether the corporate portal will become as significant to Microsoft as the Web browser was in the 90s. The company has not had an epiphany like the day in 1995 when Bill Gates turned it around to be squarely focussed on the Internet. In the mean time, it is keeping its options open with the digital dashboard, but Mr Dembecki does not see it as being as ubiquitous as, say, the Internet Explorer browser.

"As much as we'd like to see a digital dashboard on every desktop, I'm just not seeing it," he said. "A dashboard delivers real business value, which is something that has traditionally been only for high level managers. The organisation might say, here's a vanilla dashboard, and everyone can have it, but the IT guys will spend a couple of days building a dashboard for the upper level managers."

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