In the beginning, most companies seemed happy just to have a Web presence. But as most major corporations got their first-generation Web site in place, they began looking for more. For some, pretty graphics and animated GIFs were enough. But these enhancements were only cosmetic. Users began to demand true business functionality.
The resulting second-generation applications included straightforward connections to an existing legacy database application. Using a method that was often specific to that application, users could look up key information stored on a mainframe or client/server application. The first FedEx site is a common example of this application type.
But after reading how existing companies such as L.L. Bean and startups like Amazon.com were able to leverage this new business channel, corporations and users asked for even more. With these increased demands, the functionality was forced to evolve to the next generation. But these applications were a challenge to build and manage.
While companies such as Amazon.com created a custom-built site at considerable expense, most corporations needed to worry about their user base and their legacy applications.
Furthermore, although Amazon.com (along with others such as MSNBC, Time Warner's Pathfinder, and CNet) has continually been able to justify building these applications with no resulting profits, most corporations don't have the stamina for these wishful investments. In the past year, companies have started looking for some return on their investment. Given the sophistication, challenge, and limited architecture support, the cost of building legacy links to Web applications has been high.
But this will soon change, as Microsoft and Oracle roll out their newest databases. Core to both offerings is the explicit integration with Web-oriented applications. Oracle is even adding an "i" to its product name to remind us that it is Internet-ready.
Although the marketing machines started cranking out this message just last week, by Comdex we will all have heard the word. Oracle is promoting its product's scalability and multiplatform capabilities. Meanwhile, Microsoft is using its integration of development tools and SQL Server to ensure that its Digital Nervous System architecture has real backbone.
Many corporations will welcome these products, which should dramatically reduce the pain of building third-generation Web applications while encouraging much more sophisticated and user-oriented applications. User personalisation, easier purchasing, and customised access will become standard features on many Web sites.
Although these are great products, they can easily be misapplied. Besides, it isn't clear yet whether these relational databases will be able to scale to meet the astronomical and unpredictable demands of the Web.
So, as with any major evolution in technology infrastructure, it is important to maintain a healthy dose of scepticism. In some cases, these new applications will force companies to begin tying together their business strategies with their approaches to Web applications. In the long run, this could prove to be far more demanding than the technology has ever been. At least the upcoming database products are getting us closer to meeting these challenges.