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The Big Webowski

The Big Webowski

Cyberspace is expanding almost as fast as the universe itself. As Tamara Plakalo reports, with a bit of business acumen, riding the Internet-development Big Bang can make you . . . The Big WebowskiIt has been said that the only currency of real value in the Internet is attention. Curiously, the first postulate of the information economy, information, comes in only second, while the ability to do business on the Net crosses the "finish" line a distant third.

But don't throw that bronze medal in resignation just yet. Given the explosive growth of the Internet around the globe, a little patience and a Net-full of business acumen could soon see you swimming a golden race, or at least swim in gold.

A recent report by the World Information Technology and Services Alliance (WITSA) suggests that, in order to accommodate over 300 million users, cyberspace will have to expand significantly over the next five years. Building the necessary infrastructure to support this demand may take years or drag on for decades, depending on whether the right breed of products and services is made available to the Net-frenzied world of business. Add to the equation a proposition that the value of e-business will grow to $US600 billion by the year 2002, and the magnitude of the opportunity that is opening before the IT reseller should dawn on you pretty easy.

Louis Gerstner, chairman and chief executive officer of the electronic-business elder IBM, approaches the idea succinctly. "The Internet isn't just creating new business, it's creating new business models," writes Gerstner in the introduction to Big Blue's 1998 Annual Report. Premising his proposition on the idea that "the Net is the most potent tool [businesses and institutions] have ever had to build a competitive advantage" and the e-business experience that has taken his company to the forefront of the Web pioneer brigade, Gerstner suggests IT businesses better start taking notes.

"The winning edge comes from how you help customers use [this] technology - to steal a march on their [and your] competitors [through implementing] entirely new business models. That means creating integrated solutions that draw on the full range of products and, increasingly, services." Perhaps it is not necessary to spell out what is so clearly written between the lines, but the chief of the IBM tribe is telling you to catch on to the Net-business idea - and to catch on fast. Need another hint? It's time to change your name to Big Webowski - the money-making Dude of the future. For when IBM talks about e-business, its (and your) most important point of reference is simply the question of how to approach Web development in a business-savvy manner.

No one is doubting the ability of the channel to grasp the potential for growth in the virtual world.

After all, the Web has already become the bread and butter of many who, according to the WITSA report, provide the Australian community with 665,403 Internet host-servers with one or more domain names assigned to them. Most of these companies also offer some sort of development services, yet the vast majority are interested in cashing in on the communication, rather than on the business value of the Internet. And that's exactly the point Gerstner & Co are trying to draw resellers' attention to.

"A small-to-medium PC reseller, who maybe does a little bit of application development, today has two main worries - the profit margin and staff retention," Jeremy Pollard, IBM Australia's marketing man-ager for interactive solutions, explains.

"Most resellers are struggling to make profit on boxes and Web development is likely to go down that path as well. This is why we want to educate them in terms of how to apply the e-commerce principle to different business models."

Pollard asserts that, in the "period when people are still seduced, almost blinded by technology", all the middle man needs to do is remain "two steps ahead of its customers in order to add value to them. If a business doesn't have the technology exposing it to the World Wide Web developed or trialled internally, how can it be qualified to consult someone else on it?" he asks. "Yet, customers are looking for this sort of advice."

In fact, adding Web development to your business core is as much about providing your customer with an eye-catching front-end and back-end functionality as it is about imagining and understanding business solutions and explaining Web-related neologisms (such as portal) to your clients. But to provide such service, you need to get yourself into the apprenticeship mode first.

Understandably, the labyrinth of Web-development propositions and paths one could choose to take can make the idea of self-education sound like a big, wet, unknown marshland full of giant scary frogs. Yet, graduating to the level of a company like ASX-listed software developer Amlink Technologies - which owns 25 per cent of the innovative 131shop.com.au mega-site that, among other things, offers Web-development services to small business - should not be difficult at all.

"The key thing is to know that you're entering a very competitive market for which you've got to have a product that offers value for money," Trevor Gardiner, managing director of Amlink and executive director of 131shop.com.au, advises. Recognising the great earning potential of Web development, Gardiner believes that resellers' wild card lies with the "fixed-price, packaged-service" model.

Web-development services

"People used to charge $5000 to create a Web site and when you consider that 96 per cent of the Australian businesses reside at the small end of town, you can understand how unattractive that proposition was," he observes.

"This is why 'productised' Web-development services have a huge appeal in the marketplace."

Gardner's recipe for a successful Web-development endeavour revolves around two main ingredients. First, as an average channel guy, you should attack the market vertically and, second, once you've decided where to go, you have to make sure that you have your cost base covered by delivering a profitable product. These two elements are causally interconnected in that the understanding of a niche market ultimately determines whether or not a product or a solution can deliver profitability to your Web-development business venture.

"It is much harder to deliver a successful business-to-consumer Internet commerce solution than it is to work with your suppliers or partners on delivering a narrower business-to-business solution," says David McNaughton, Microsoft Australia's senior marketing manager for developer products and MSDN program.

McNaughton agrees with Gardiner's observations, but thinks that Gardiner's formula should be expanded to include the "skill variable".

"With the improvement in the maturity of Web-development applications, the task of site development is becoming more mainstream," he says. "This means that, unless resellers are content to remain in the box-business, selling the latest Web-development tools, there is a new field they need to understand, which is how to integrate Web sites with databases."

Finance and distribution applications developer Sterling Systems is one com-pany that has completed this part of the Web-business apprenticeship successfully. Owing to the sophistication of the Web-development tools available in the market, Sterling claims its 10-person team did not have to spend a day retraining for its first site-development endeavour. However, choosing the right tools was crucial to the successful delivery of integrated Web solutions to their customers.

"Generically speaking, if you want to go from the back end and do transaction processing, you really should look at what experience you have in-house, or readily available to you from the database point of view, and then look at what tools will fit onto that database," the company's director, Graham Hobson, proposes.

"You could also go out into the marketplace and recruit people specifically for Internet programming or you could use Microsoft-type front ends and back ends, but if you need an industrial-strength database, you will often have to make much more complicated decisions."

Interestingly, it was only after the numerous requests from customers to put a front end to their financial applications started arriving at Sterling's Queensland-based office that the company realised it needed to expand its core competency and put Web development on the agenda. Since "giving in" to market pressure, Sterling has further responded to the challenges of the Web by developing an online billing system, Netbill.

"We're all doing global business now," Hobson reminds his channel peers. "So those companies that don't go into the Web business will fall on their backsides and there will be many more waiting to take their place."

Of course, doing business on the Web does not have to involve inventing more Netbills. According to Philip Powers, vice president for professional services at seasoned US Web-development vendor Vignette, customers are already starting to fit into different Web-application categories, making the process of selecting your target demographic easier.

It's only the beginning

"These are still the early years of e-business and both resellers and customers are focused on building products," Powers says.

"Moreover, a lot of customers are smaller companies who appreciate competitive pricing and a reseller who specialises in their market," he adds.

Based on Vignette's experience in the US market, Powers identifies four categories of Web development a reseller should consider specialising in. The most commonly requested service is the development of portals, the sites that Microsoft defines as "Internet crossroads where consumers gather and businesses connect with them".

While their popularity is based on that most valuable "Web currency" - the ability to "generate awareness about products and services" - Powers expects the reign of portals in the Web-development space to be eclipsed by e-commerce applications fairly soon.

Completing the Web-development categories list with the customer or channel self-service and online training applications, he points out that his choice should by no means be mistaken for some sort of Internet-development gospel truth.

"Basically, as the enterprise comes into the picture, more complex development areas become more important," he explains. And the democratisation of Web-development tools does not really play into resellers' hands either.

But, unless you've decided to turn into a Web-developing prima donna, the ability to imagine yourself as that money-making Dude of the future should be enough to get you started.

What's new from . . . adobe

One of the leaders of the desktop revolution, Adobe was among the first to understand the need for comprehensive design tools that would make the maxim "image is everything" easily convertible to the Internet reality. Among a number of Web-development tools, Adobe's best known and most popular software seems to be PageMill, which allows Web sites to be built in a drag-and-drop environment.

Adobe claims PageMill-built sites can be used for online sales and maintained almost automatically. Working with PageMill doesn't require any knowledge of HTML.

PageMill highlights

Integrated site management prevents broken links, missing graphics, etcSupports a variety of browsersUser-friendly developer interfaceIn-line Java and multimedia support with dozens of customisable Java appletsAdvanced HTML support for users requiring more control over their HTMLWeb-safe colour panelAn automated Web-commerce feature, ShopSite Express, for online salesEasy-to-use text formatting toolsAdobeTel (02) 9418 8488What's new from . . . IBMHomePage Creator is IBM's e-commerce-enabled solution for small businesses and works on a subscription basis. This means that SMEs can pay as little as $60 a month to build and update their own e-commerce solutions that are hosted by IBM or an IBM reseller. IBM claims HomePage Creator, which lets businesses accept and process credit card payments online, is an excellent solution both for resellers hungry for better margins and SMEs weary of spending thousands of dollars on Web development. Real-time credit card transactions and domain name services are optional.

HomePage Creator highlights

Web hosting

Web-based authoring tools

Personalised Web address

Product catalogue pages

Purchaser "shopping cart"

Help line support

Site registration with Internet search enginesRequirementsPC equipped with a modem or direct Internet accessWindows 95 or Windows NT operating systemNetscape Navigator 4.06 or Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.01 or higherIBMTel 13 2426What's new from . . . information buildersInformation access, integration and analysis specialist Information Builder has a key product, WebFOCUS, that is a suite of tools "specially designed to take advantage of the low-cost, low-maintenance and wide distribution of the corporate intranet/extranet", the US company claims. Touted by Info Builders as "the leading Web reporting solution for the enterprise and beyond", WebFOCUS supports a number of formats (such as HTML, Excel and PDF) allowing access to any type of data.

WebFOCUS highlights

Enables ad hoc parameterised reporting, charting, OLAP analysis and report distributionScalable from departmental workgroup to full enterprise deploymentAllows for formatted and styled reports to be done by using a standard Web browserMulti-tier distributed processing to increase performance and network efficiencyAccess to a number of databases, including mainframe legacy or ERP-based dataSimultaneous deployment on both Internet and client/serverInformation BuildersTel (03) 9650 6855What's new from . . . urlabsURLabs, the US software developer for Internet services, focuses on the development of content management applications.

The company's intention to "define content management as more than simple Internet filtering" is best captured by its I-Gear set of tools aimed at giving a user "complete control" over the flow of information to and from the Internet. This client-server system is administered using a Web browser from any client computer on a network.

I-Gear highlights

Remote administration from any client computerCustomised access permissions for users, user Casts, Clients and Client CastsUnlimited number of locally defined listsContext-sensitive, real-time Dynamic Document ReviewOptional user authentication for Internet accessAutomated filter list and dictionary updatesComprehensive reporting capabilitiesSupports systems running IIS 4.0, multiple trusted domains and NT Challenge/Response AuthenticationA trial version of I-Gear is available for free download from URLabs' Web site, www.urlabs.com. In Australia, the product is distributed by Sydney-based Techex Communications.

Techex Communications

Tel (02) 9970 5844

What's new from . . . vignette

A relative newcomer to the Australian market, Vignette is one of the best known Web-development and Internet Relationship Management (IRM) vendors in the US. Claiming to provide enterprise solutions for "successful online businesses", Vignette's range of products includes the StoryServer 4 suite that incorporates four elements of IRM: life cycle personalisation, content management, decision support and syndication. The suite includes StoryServer 4 platform and a set of production, business and development tools dubbed Site to Site.

StoryServer 4 Platform highlights

Content management and delivery features allow content to be managed in discrete components that are assembled dynamically and delivered via the Web server, while ensuring rapid development and deployment and high-performance deliveryLife cycle personalisation tools allow the Web site to be personalised by adapting to a user's browser and operating system, using filtering technologies or matching visitors' interest with the appropriate contentUser profiling enables the Web site owner to observe visitors and anticipate and respond to their specific interestsMaximum flexibility to integrate with other applicationsVignetteTel (02) 9510 0098


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