Portals: Coming to a Suite Near You

Plumtree is a different entity. It has the distinction of being a former pure portal player, according to Laura Ramos, an analyst at Forrester Research who tracks the portal market. The firm evolved with the market and today it enjoys a broad, devout customer base and reputation for rapid deployment, she said.

Plumtree spokesperson Karilu Pozorksi said Plumtree agrees with the distinction Gartner makes between SES and APS, but not with its predictions about which group will own the market.

Gartner, she said, believes that customers will opt for the convenience of one-stop shopping, purchasing their entire Web software technologies based on their application server preferences, driving the portal and supporting services into the infrastructure stack. Pozorski said there are problems with that assessment, namely that many companies are unwilling or unable to create homogenous environments where they must use one app server and one programming language.

“Homogeneity may be a vision or strategy for many companies, but it is not a practical reality,” Pozorksi said. “Heterogeneity is key.”

She also said existing technology investments may also hinder the one-stop shopping approach. “The vendors who are building on their proprietary app server or targeted application package are much less likely to provide an open platform where companies can centralize and integrate competing products. Is PeopleSoft really going to build and support portal integration for SAP software?”

Plumtree’s vision is one of an “Enterprise Web,” where vendors who can offer both solid functionality and the ability to run on multiple kinds of infrastructure will be a hit with customers. The company will soon make available a Plumtree Enterprise Web Suite, which is its next major step in the effort to re-invent the portal market around the Enterprise Web. The culmination of three years of development, this suite will feature new versions of just about every major Plumtree product.

“Plumtree really understands what customers do with the portals,” said Forrester’s Ramos. “They have some of the largest, most successful implementation. They’re not going away because they keep meeting customers’ demands. Without them, the portal would be UI [user interface on top of other peoples’ middleware and application suite.”

IBM, meanwhile, is an example of the combination approach. It has an application server in WebSphere, plus a multitude of integration technologies accumulated through mergers and acquisitions, as well as in-house development, said Tim Thatcher, program director for IBM Portals.

“It means the portal is more than just a pretty face,” Thatcher said. “The path from APS to SES has really led to a hybrid [APS/SES combo]. By no means have we reached the steady state where large enterprise have invested in portals. The underlying technology hasn’t changed but the ease of use and installation has improved tremendously. It’s like the VCR years ago. For the first 3 or 4 years, you had to program it when you bought it. Now, with new tweaks and enhancements, a lot of that is already pre-programmed.”

Using instant messaging via a portal, for example, one looking at a sales report might be able to chat with a corresponding sales representative simply by clicking on his or her name on the screen, as opposed to sifting through a buddy list. This would extend to e-mail, calendars, etc.

But Gartner’s Phifer said that while IBM leads the pack in many categories, they don’t lead on the ease of installation. “IBM’s WebSphere portal continues to require a greater-than-average amount of effort to install, build and deploy.” However, he said IBM has improved that with its WebSphere Portal Express offering.

Thatcher said the future of portals is pointing to a “more integrated user experience.” Thatcher expects the IBM, and portal segment at large, to employ even greater integration in the future, but wouldn’t tip off IBM’s hand further. However, it’s a sure bet that Big Blue’s on-demand focus will have an impact on how it crafts, deploys and markets its portals going forward.

“The portal is the on-ramp to on-demand e-business,” Thatcher said.

But word has leaked that IBM Software and its Lotus Software Group have built J2EE-based spreadsheet, document and presentation graphics “applications” that will be bundled for free with the company’s WebSphere portal, which sources say could appear later this summer.

Microsoft rising

It’s fair to talk about BEA, Plumtree and IBM in the same breath because they are all market leaders, according to Phifer. But Microsoft, too, is looking to penetrate the APS/SES market segment, as it more or less created an application server with its Windows .NET Server release and its pending Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003 would seem to be a strong showing.

The company could not respond to questions in time for this report, but the company has released a wealth of information about what the new SharePoint entails on the heels of its heralded Windows Server 2003 release.

Available later this year, SharePoint will integrate information from line-of-business systems into one environment and make it possible for users to access information from enterprise applications using single sign-on access. Windows SharePoint Services will allows folks with a Web browser to create and access workspaces for managing documents, discussions, lists, surveys and other contextual information such as team member status and presence.

“It acts as a main hub for the Office System desktop, making it simple and powerful for users throughout the organization to get information…” said said Jeff Teper, general manager of the Business Portals Group at Microsoft, in a public statement.

Ramos said Microsoft’s strategy for Version 2.0 is to be more like IBM, with collaboration features built on top of Windows Sharepoint services. She noted Microsoft’s approach is for a desktop outward view to their portal framework. And, like IBM, Phifer said Microsoft still has some gaps to close, including integration, personalization and multiple portal management.

What the future holds

Phifer has some prognostications for the future of the portal market.

“By 2005, more than 85 percent of portal frameworks will be sold via an APS, SES or APS/SES combination. The APS-only variety of portal products will be a very small segment of the market, and will eventually evolve to an APS/SES combination. One example of this evolution is BEA Systems, an APS-only vendor. Its strategy is to eventually become an APS/SES combination vendor. By 2007, more than 95 percent of portal frameworks will be sold via an SES or APS/SES combination.”

Phifer said this will be accompanied by push to a new era of composite applications, which will consume services delivered by line-of-business applications and collaborative components. More mature Web services, he said, will play a part in the evolution.

“Portals will be the standard user interface for many mobile devices, interactive voice response systems, kiosks, automobiles and consumer electronics devices. Enterprises must identify the kinds of portals that their users will access and provide an infrastructure to deal with multiple channels of interaction. Even enterprises that currently have no need to provision a nontraditional portal will be forced to do so in the near future as device proliferation, driven by third-generation (3G) wireless devices, takes hold.”

“Five years down the road, I see an adaptive workspace, where portals anticipate in middleware context what the user needs to do,” Ramos said. “Some of technology will include pattern matching, collaboration and filtering, online awareness. These are the type of things that will come together at the operating system that, as someone interacts with the system, they can plug in and ID card and the system is aware.”

But unlike Phifer, who sees best-of-breed evaporating for the most part, Ramos predicted firms will either use suite approaches or the best-of-breed approaches. “There will be more competition and streamlining. It’s hard to tell, but there is almost always a pendulum shift between suites and best of breed. Who knows? Maybe we will get to a point in Web services and standards where we can implement best-of-breed products into the suites.”