Portals look set to replace Windows

The integration that makes portals work lies beneath the user interface as an iceberg's bulk lies beneath the water.

The integration that makes portals work lies beneath the user interface as an iceberg's bulk lies beneath the water.

Your Windows desktop will be a thing of the past in the next couple of years, according to Ovum. The usability of portals and their potential to bring together corporate information will see the technology dominate the corporate desktop, the research group says in a report released last week.

The advantages of the portal come from the ability to put information from a variety of applications and databases on to one browser interface. Data can then be viewed in different ways by dragging and dropping on-screen icons representing elements onto others. For instance you could drag and drop a map icon on to customer account records and get local maps displayed.

Combine this with the usability of browser-style text links over buttons and menus and, says Ovum, you have the graphical interface of the future.

The underlying technology is not particularly new - witness Internet-based consumer portals such as Yahoo - but it is likely to achieve massive popularity in the corporate environment as expectations of the user interface have changed as Web use increased.

The application of the portal principle for corporate users, drawing data from the business and capitalising on the familiarity of users with the browser interface has created a marketplace with more than 100 software suppliers vying for attention.

The importance of the trend has not escaped Microsoft, which has entered the market with Sharepoint Portal Server. "Having owned the corporate desktop for two decades, the software giant's crown is under threat as portals promise to become the new corporate interface," the Ovum report says.

But the report also spells out the stumbling block to achieving real gains from portal technology - integration. Many portal suppliers claim their products facilitate integration when they really mean aggregation, bringing information together in one place but not really linking it. "By just aggregating all you can do is allow related bits of information to be presented in the same place," says Chris Harris-Jones, co-author of the Ovum report. "Searching and personalisation are the only things that make a portal better in this regard.

Integration is necessary for portal technology to come of age, he adds. As an example, he cites the case of a customer service representative who needs access to structured information such as customer details and history as well as unstructured information such as the last letter sent to the customer. Since these are likely to be held in different systems, for the portal to be useful it has to automatically draw on both rather than retrieve through a time-consuming search.

The portal marketplace will thin out soon, as supplier competition increases, driving down prices and forcing smaller suppliers into mergers or buy-outs. The report identifies a likely key to survival as the ability of the supplier to "provide integration". Most of the suppliers approached during research offered aggregation rather than integration - the report says that the distinction is not visible to many suppliers.

Most large corporates are struggling to integrate data from a variety of legacy sources - less than 25% of businesses have achieved any form of information exchange, let alone process integration. This task is usually a long, complex process involving hand-cranking islands of data into a commonly recognised format that the portal can draw on, then act as an interchange for process-based interaction. This is the part that is not visible in the portal implementation process.

The portal and the integration necessary to make one work are like an iceberg - its bulk lies below the surface. To truly bnefit from the usefulness of portal technology there needs to be a massive amount of unseen integration work beneath the surface of the user interface.

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