Things Don’t Always Work
Something happened last week that reminded me of the uncertainties of using the web to deliver rich media content. This got me thinking about how some companies might be taking a “wait and see” attitude about still-evolving “web 2.0” technical architectures.
My wife called about an email she had received that contained a link to something she couldn’t read: “I’m trying to show an attachment to an email I got from a client but I can’t. I called her to ask what to do and she told me to make sure that ‘flash was turned on’. What does she mean by “flash?”
I explained what “Flash” from Macromedia is and fixed her problem, but not until she had experienced a significant delay in communicating with a prospective client — all because a popular web browser add-in wasn’t properly configured.
Things Have To Work Together
This got me to thinking about the current evangelizing that is swirling around Web 2.0, AJAX, SOA, and tools like Ruby on Rails, a web application development framework. I’m not a developer, but I try to follow the discussions.
I’ve been impressed with the mass of available applications that offer sophisticated functionality without requiring a “heavy client footprint.” Just check out Christian Mayaud’s list of web 2.0 applications if you want to be amazed (and amused). Writely and ajaxWrite are also good examples of web-delivered applications.
I thought back to my wife’s question. “Flash” is one of those “helper” applications that an entire industry and developer community has grown up around. It’s now firmly a part of the Internet infrastructure. That wasn’t always the case, and as I saw with my wife’s question, there are still “pockets” of users where an unknown configuration setting can cause the final step in a complex communication channel to fail.
Parallels With Web 2.0
This got me to thinking about what has to happen each time an AJAX based “web 2.0” application is used. Some current “mashups” might be combining widely available public data, but with “enterprise” types of applications we might be talking about the over-the-web handling of valuable — or sensitive — personal or financial data. Reliability and stability of all parts of the server, net, and client will be critical. All will have to work together to ensure reliable two way interaction.
Is uncertainty about this reliability one of the reasons why some corporate IT managers are taking a wait-and-see attitude about “web 2.0”? My wife’s temporary problem is probably not too unusual. There are many users out there who work day in and day out without paying special attention to extensions, helper applications, thin clients, RSS feeds, and the like. There are probably a lot of them for whom managing the vicissitudes of a commonly available component such as Flash is at best, an annoyance.
In theory, the population of users like my wife might be considered one of the prime targets of the “web 2.0” delivered rich functionality for remotely served applications such as are sometimes referred to as “Web Office” or Office 2.0. Technologies such as AJAX (and Flash, ActiveX, and Java, as well) help deliver near-desktop-quality functionality (some may argue with the adjective “near”) without requiring the permanent installation of massive amounts of (expensively-licensed) software on the client machine. The potential simplification of the client’s configuration is viewed by many corporate I.T. folks as A Good Thing.
Dice Must Roll The Right Way
A lot of dice have to roll the right way for all parts of the channel to work every time. Sometimes problems occur, as my wife’s experience attests — and she was dealing with one of the oldest and most venerable components for delivering rich media content.
I think of issues related to this every time I switch over from Yahoo’s old-but-serviceable Web Mail interface to the Yahoo! Mail Beta (I use the paid version of Yahoo! Mail for much of my correspondence). When I’m using the Yahoo! Mail Beta via my office DSL connection, I have to wait for data to load. While I’m waiting, access to other tabs on my FireFox browser is annoyingly delayed. And while I love the “drag and drop” functionality the Yahoo! Mail Beta interface provides, the hesitation of the interface grates after a while, especially when handling as much daily email as I do.
Are Internet users willing to accept such performance glitches “outside the firewall” in order to gain access to a pretty interface that looks like it’s running from a local client? I know my wife won’t. Call her a “basic user” if you will but her standards for performance are quite high. (I know - I hear about it whenever our home network slows down!)
Enterprise Acceptance Of Web 2.0
What’s this got to do with enterprise acceptance of Web 2.0 applications developed using new technologies and development tools?
I don’t pretend to understand all the software architecture ins and outs, but it seems to me that if Web 2.0 applications built around AJAX and related technologies are to succeed in the “enterprise” a LOT of dice have to roll the right way, such as:
- Tools, development, and testing processes must continue to mature (this is happening).
- Tools, development, and testing processes must be accepted into the enterprise — in addition to, or in replacement of, the architectures that are already there (e.g., how many development platforms is an IT department willing to support?)
- Data security and stability issues must be solved — especially when it comes to handling sensitive customer and financial data.
- The new architecture must deliver — and have documented — (a) reduced costs, (b) added benefits, or (c) both (a) and (b).
- Company executives must be willing to accept a new network architecture paradigm along with its frequent association with “social networking” functionality that many people are still not comfortable with.
Note that, except for the last bullet point, the issues here are similar to the issues associated with the introduction of any new programming language or development framework into the enterprise. The costs of changes to process and technologies have to be outweighed by the promised benefits. In that sense, AJAX is no different from any other evangelized technologies that have come before, except that the Web now provides data, delivery platform, and the medium for promotion (and hype).
More Than Technical Architecture Challenges
Let’s return to that last bullet point. One of the most astute descriptions of the situation regarding enterprise web 2.0 adoption is the recent blog article by Thad Scheer of Sphere of Influence called Monetizing Value of Social Computing in Traditional Industries. (Author Disclosure: I know Thad.) Thad is the CEO of a DC-area consulting firm that serves both government and corporate customers. He bases his statements on what he sees as resistance from traditional “brick and mortar” industries to adopting a new customer relationship paradigm. According to Thad, the executives of these industries see web 2.0 as reducing their control over their data and their customer relationships, especially when “social networking” functionality is included in the mix. (Some of my own Web 2.0 Management Survey interviews have borne this view out.)
While Thad goes on to assess the more willing acceptance of “web 2.0” by newer firms and more consumer product oriented firms, the issues he points out are not issues of technical architecture, they are issues of functionality and the expectations executives have of how they relate to their customers.
Perhaps it’s reasonable to expect that certain population segments and certain types of business transactions will be thought of by corporate executives as being outside the realm of either “web 1.0” or “web 2.0” infrastructures. Not every business transaction can — or should — be handled electronically. Judgements about such situations will have to be made on a company by company, industry by industry, and transaction by transaction basis.
Change Comes Fast
Changes to social interactions and to network infrastructure can’t — and won’t — change overnight. But pressure to adopt more collaborative and interactive techniques based on “social software,” even with populations that might have traditionally been thought of as being resistant to such approaches, might develop faster than some people think. In particular, knowledge workers inside and outside even the traditional industries will expect more conversational and interactive communications both within their companies and with the companies — and customers — they deal with.
Management will need to adapt to the fact that employees are now able to engage with customers more frequently and on a more personal level than ever before. Companies will respond differently depending on their structures, management styles, and regulatory constraints. Some will have a small number of “CEO-style” blogs with commenting “turned off.” Some will organize groups of staff members to interact in a structured fashion with different groups of users with management structures potentially modelled after high end professional call centers. Still others will engage all staff to interact as a normal part of their job (just like answering the phone). The I.T. department will be called upon to evaluate and if necessary provide support for an appropriate technology platform that may interface — reliably and safely — with other corporate systems.
Competition Spurs Change
Will the “brick and mortar” businesses that Thad writes about just sit by while smaller and more agile competitors, who have much less invested in legacy infrastructure, nibble away at their businesses?
I don’t think so. It’s from such competitors that the pressure on traditional companies to adopt “Enterprise Web 2.0” most likely will come.
The author would like to thank Rod Boothby, Chris Law, Jeremiah Owyang, and Luis Suarez for commenting on earlier versions of this article.
For an updated version see Sys-Con’s WEB 2.0 JOURNAL here.
For other posts related to Enterprise Web 2.0, click here.
Copyright © 2006 by Dennis D. McDonald. Dennis is an independent consultant based in the Washington DC area. He has worked throughout the U.S. and in Europe, Egypt, and China. In addition to consulting company ownership and management his experience includes database publishing and data transformation, integration of large systems, corporate technology strategy, social media adoption, statistical research, and IT cost analysis. His web site is located atwww.ddmcd.com and his email addres is email@example.com.