Portals of plenty

Today, planning for retirement usually means playing the stock market in some manner or form. The trend has had a profound, if sideways, impact on application development. There are two sides to the retirement craze: the 401(k) or IRA that an individual invests in, and the Initial Public Offering (IPO) that particularly tantalizes software company management with stock options and buckets of what once passed for great wealth.

It is the latter side of investment that gives the software business both its excitement and its peril.

Software is at the heart of the new economy, but this may not be a blessing to the corporate software buyer. There is a lot of restless speculative capital about. Thus, there is plenty of funding available to back anything resembling an inventive idea. Couple something resembling an idea with something resembling a business plan, and a software start-up can probably discover a few million venture dollars. And if its product is remotely useful, it will soon find robustly funded competitors. Start-ups and competitors together will burn through venture bucks to gain mere slivers of market share. If the original plan was not to be bought by a bigger company, Plan "B" will.

Now, there was always an element of what Digital Equipment Corp.'s Ken Olsen called snake oil in the software business (in his case, he was referring to Unix). But this was not because the product was a fake, but rather because the seller was likely to leave town. And these days that is still too true. The IPO-happy software industry produces too many one-hit wonders and too-few ongoing businesses. If you use advanced software, your sales rep and your vendor's company name is always changing. Many marketing dollars in the war chest means little these days,
at least to an application development manager trying to decide if the software seller will be here tomorrow.

There was a time when an application development tool like PowerBuilder was the hot button on Wall Street. The hot button of the moment is known as the portal. It started with some hot Web search engines. Sometime last summer, a few OLAP companies started to describe their products as information portals. Now, a slew of portals can be found in the recent stream of high-tech press releases. There are information portals, corporate portals, portals for personal and professional development, Internet portals, enterprise information portals and Portalware™ ... and this really just scratches the surface of portals.

But Merriam-Webster, in its online dictionary, still doesn't get it. Look up portals on and you are not told that a portal is an open gate to all the money you can imagine. Its etymology, according to genteel Merriam, is Middle English, from Middle French, from Medieval Latin in which portale stood for "city gate" or "porch." It was an entrance, especially a grand or imposing one. Go to Lycos, Yahoo, Altavista, et. al. (actually, don't go to et. al) to see an Internet portal. Is it like ye olde city gate? You be the judge. Just remember, a portal is the epitome of value, and it should not be made of brick and mortar. brick and mortar = bad.

This is not to imply that a jaundiced view should rule. There are amazing Internet-centric products to be encountered all the time. Some even use "portal" in their descriptions. In recent weeks I have seen Knowledge Organizer from Verity, which creates Yahoo-like categorizations of corporate data. I've seen an interesting online smart product configurator, Rainmaker 3.1 from On-Link. I recently got to take a look at the work of Perspecta 3.0 from Perspecta Inc. It is a nifty means to bring structure to unstructured data, and somewhat indicates where XML may be headed. There are many more worthwhile offerings to consider. Are there more good ideas these days than in the past? I don't know. Are there more ideas, and is it harder for good ones to be heard? It seems that way.

IT managers cannot ignore the portal movement. It used to be said that IT should align with corporate business objectives. Now, as information systems have become part of the Internet -- which is also part of a vast entertainment system -- IT managers must be prepared to align with corporate show business objectives. It all starts with the portal.

Gambling stakes mount as uncertainty rises. These days, technology -- especially software and, very especially, Internet software -- provides the financial market with its necessary daily helping of hopeful uncertainty. The path of the software business is almost impossible to adjudge and, for Wall Street at least, that is a good thing. This is because hard-to-measure castles in the sky are more valuable than the earthbound variety. For software buyers, this adds more risk to an already risky business.

So, what is a portal? It is a grand view into a great uncertainty. Portals of plenty, ahoy!

About the Author

Jack Vaughan is former Editor-at-Large at Application Development Trends magazine.