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Give Them What They Want

Company portals with information for every customer are so last year. Personalized portals with mash-ups and other features are the future.
"I absolutely believe that there's going to be more and more power put into the hands of individuals at companies," she says in an E-mail. "We're working right now on ways to eliminate the need to code anything in creating and customizing apps. This isn't easy to do, technically or from a user-experience perspective, but we think that we have a compelling approach that will make a huge difference in achieving this goal."

JotSpot has a similar online platform for application development, and its wiki applications already are competitive with packaged portal software. JotSpot's do-it-yourself project-management, calendaring, call-center support, and document-collaboration apps may not be ideal for massive global companies with complex requirements, but they can do the job for smaller companies and for individuals or teams in all sorts of organizations.

What's Ahead
That's not to say that BEA, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, and Vignette, along with less-well-known players like Hummingbird, OpenText, and Tibco, won't continue to play big roles. Middleware remains a necessity to coordinate, connect, and enhance various enterprise systems. "Portal technology is used more broadly than deploying MyCompany.com; it's now a framework for building a number of different applications," BEA's Simons says.

But leading providers of portal-development and application software have some thinking to do as portal technology becomes commoditized and the software industry matures. "Everybody has kind of been consolidated down into a couple of big, traditionally infrastructure players like IBM, BEA, Oracle, and SAP," says Tamara Alairys, global lead for Accenture's content-management practice. "A couple of years ago, there were so many more of these products. They've all been pushed down the stack into the infrastructure space."

"There is this tendency to move away from portal platforms and just roll your own," observes Carl Frappaolo, executive VP and co-founder of the Delphi Group, an IT consulting firm. "The portal no longer requires a portal product. You can start building these [using] service-oriented architectures, Web content management, and a certain amount of functionality from a larger platform like an IBM or a Microsoft."

One reason for this is the high price of packaged portal technologies. Software vendors are "trying to extract every dollar out of the software that they're selling, and if you want the portal piece, it's X dollars plus maintenance," says Thomas Obrey, chief operating officer and co-founder of Web-development and technology consulting company PixelMedia. "If you want the API to push and pull data, that's yet another piece."

The move to so-called Web 2.0 and the concept of these little miniature applets is starting to cause companies to question the traditional approaches to CRM, ERP, and even data-warehousing apps, Obrey says. "It's a fundamental shift at the enterprise level of how you even view applications and how those applications are shared," he says.

For a businessperson, that means the Web browser will play the main role in information sharing and retrieval. "What we're seeing in our practice is that the portal is becoming the virtual desktop," Alairys says. "It's everything from delivery of everyday content to really providing access to integrated applications. And that's where the big bang is, being able to allow an end user to create this customized desktop or have it driven by their role."

The shift to a user-driven paradigm is likely to pose a challenge to IT departments. "End users love to do things on their own," Gartner's Phifer says. He envisions situations where businesspeople decide to build their own portals for their jobs, creating pressure on the IT department to roll out company-authorized custom portals faster and more cheaply than employees can do on their own. Yet it will require more such capabilities in personalized portal development than what's now on the market. "I'm talking more than My Yahoo here," Phifer says.

If that sounds like a revolution, it is. Users are demanding control and starting to get it. As Obrey puts it, "People need to start moving toward a simplification of tools that puts the power in the hands of the casual users and the administrators who are ultimately responsible for the experience the constituents have." And it can mean good news for businesses, too, once their employees finally get what they most want and need from online data sources.