Web 2.0 and Internet-as-a-Platform: It’s still WAY too hard

Joe had built a publishing and consulting business over many, many years but it was changing…and not for the better. Though his clients and customers loved his products and services, he found that sales had been continuing to erode even though he was bringing out new products at a feverish pace.

New products always sold well but it was exhausting to scramble to make them and he had a vague sense that the problem wasn’t his information, his insights or his delivery…it was a shift in how his clients and customers were obtaining what he created and at some point it wouldn’t matter how many new products he shoved into the pipeline…people would stop buying. They were already pretty disinterested in his print, DVD’s or most of the electronic delivery he offered. There had to be a better way to deliver what clients and customers wanted and start to grow again instead of focusing on how to stop the decline in revenue.

All Joe heard about was Web 2.0; how big media was scrambling to be relevant; that people were creating their own content and many tried to convince him to give away his product and build buzz (yeah right…and go out of business to boot!); that the collective intelligence connected via the Internet was smarter than any company, individual or small team so that unless he figured out how to build a community around what his firm offered, he was screwed.

It became crystal clear to him that — just like all the other business types being disrupted by the Internet-as-a-platform and Web 2.0 — he had to quickly map his business on to the Internet while ensuring he didn’t kill his current revenue streams. It was going to require some finesse to shift his current clients and customers over to the Web while still selling them his other offerings…but he thought they would do it. Yep…building a web asset was the key and he set about enthusiastically building one in earnest.

What he discovered wasn’t pretty.

With a relatively small budget, he first searched for solutions using many of the Web 2.0 lists. While he found dozens of useful offerings — and many he would end up using for other tasks — NONE of them provided him with anything remotely resembling what he needed: a public facing, integrated suite of functionality for his business with HIS brand on it and not theirs.

He found point solutions in the Web 2.0 world that looked good….but everything he signed up for would be hosted elsewhere and his clients and customers would leap around from place-to-place with no central navigation or sense of place. Someone even recommended to him that he TEACH HIS CLIENTS AND CUSTOMERS TO USE TABBED BROWSING IN FIREFOX TO ACCESS ALL OF HIS OFFERINGS BUILT ON WEB 2.0 PLATFORMS. He just shook his head in disbelief.

Another technical guy he knows suggested that Joe simply hire a Ruby on Rails developer to build it all from scratch. “Look,” said Joe, “I can’t believe that in a day of supposed explosions in Web services and everybody offering up those API thingys that I have to build something totally from the ground up.

Believing the buzz about today’s new wave of functionality on the Internet and how open source had revolutionized the software industry, Joe looked at the world of open source
along with a consultant friend of his who was guiding him on strategy.
He needed quite a bit of software to flesh out his vision of a Web asset that would be something his clients would want to use and be delighted to give up everything he offered to use it. What he needed had been out for awhile so he was certain it would be easy to integrate:

1) A content management package so that his staff could manage aspects of the site and input content. They were fairly non-technical so it had to be easy to use and self-administer

a) An ability to have logins for current clients and customers so they could get into special, paid-for areas

b) Great templates or designers who could quickly and inexpensively deliver a great look-n-feel

c) Something extensible so that it could grow as he found new functionality to deliver

2) A blog. He was convinced that this would bring a voice…his voice…to the site, warm it up, help his clients and customers connect with the company. It had to be tightly integrated into the site and its look-n-feel.

3) Community. Some sort of forum so that his customers and clients could talk to one another. It had to be tightly integrated into the site and its look-n-feel.

4) Ecommerce. He still wanted to deliver digital products *and* have people subscribe/join/pay and thus get into the special areas of the site. The shopping cart had to be tightly integrated into the site and its look-n-feel.

5) There were other things he thought he might want (online newsletter, connection to a CRM system so Web forms would input data directly into it, etc.) but he thought it would be prudent to choose the four areas above that were undoubtedly easy to assemble into an integrated whole site.

He looked at what Intel was delivering with its Suite Two and the support from Spikesource. While interesting and the support model Spikesource offers compelling, he scratched his head since the software they’d chosen (Drupal, Socialtext, Wlordpress, etc.) all had their own completely different and unique user interfaces, deployment models and presentation layers — so there was no way this was suited for anything other than a midmarket company’s intranet.

This was puzzling to Joe since his consultant friend had pointed out the size of the small business market where Joe’s company fit within. He told him that small business was the engine of the US economy and sent him this in an email “Small businesses have long been referred to as the engine of the national economy. Today they’re also providing the fuel. Forrester Research (forrester.com), a technology research firm in Cambridge, Mass., found that in 2006 U.S. small businesses spent about $138 billion on technology products and services, accounting for 19% of all IT spending.” and even provided him with a link to the article.

Maybe I’m kidding myself that small business can build a real Web asset,” thought Joe. With a big sigh and an urge to continue, he next interviewed a dozen design firms since he figured he’d have to build this Web asset out of several open source packages by himself. Some said “use Drupal”; some “use Joomla”; most said “use WordPress”; but the forum and ecommerce software offerings were too numerous for him even to remember what they recommended.

But here’s where it got HUGELY challenging and he had to keep reminding himself, “OK…you’re a grown man. Do not cry.” He looked at each of the administration interfaces for these various offerings and realized that the incredibly steep learning curve for his people would be required on EACH OF THE PACKAGES!  Integrating all of these very different open source offerings would be prohibitively expensive (AND UNLIKELY TO EVER LOOK LIKE ONE, ORCHESTRATED AND COORDINATED SITE) and none of the firms even had a clue on how to do it. “Just train all of your people on the different packages” some said. Others recommended hiring a permanent systems administrator who could run them all. The more he looked into this as an option, the more he realized that his thoughts around a $25-$35k budget to build and deliver this Web asset was laughingly small. He couldn’t even find a part time, 20 hour per week admin for the whole budget amount!

He looked at offerings like CityMax (no staging to production so everything instantly goes live as you’re building it);  Bigstep (bought by Affinity and Affinity bought by Hostway and there’s been zero investment and poor performance for years) and other ones like them that seem to be geared for Martha’s Beauty Salon and other extremely small Mom & Pop operations.

Now what?

It’s been six months and Joe has a blog. That’s it. He’s still trying to figure out how he — a power user but not a coder or developer — can even make a choice on how to build a Web asset like the one he’d strategized about above, let alone take it to fruition. It’s just way too hard. Too expensive. Too frustrating. He wonders why everyone pontificates about the promise of open source and Web 2.0 while the reality of it for the masses doesn’t come close to matching the hype.

 



 

This is Steve. The story above is a composite. Joe is my fictional “Joe Schmedlap” character whom I use with his wife Jane from time-to-time to describe smart, reasonably technical people that own their own business but are dumbfounded by the technical hurdles that exist for them to use it. They envision what is possible with technology for their business….but the reality of deploying it is daunting for he and Jane.

I have several clients, dozens of friends, my bride and myself that comprise “Joe”. When I talk to my technical friends — or like I did yesterday with some hot developers at MinneBar — they always get agitated with me when I talk about all the non-geek humans out there that have GREAT NEED and HIGH INTEREST in buying and delivering a Web asset and how it’s still TOO HARD.

My favorite example how it is and how it could be is this comparison: the fabulous Ubuntu Linux with its unix-like core and a really good user interface. I’ve got it loaded on my machine right now and am blown away with how great it is….but…..it can’t hold a candle to what Apple has done with Mac OS X, a user interface over BSD unix. The former is still geeky; the latter is something that my 81 year old Dad, my wife and kids, and numerous other NON-TECHNICAL people use.

What do we need?

A user interface framework — a target if you will — that open source project groups can deliver toward. Everyone has their own approach; their own ideas; and that’s great. But what is stifling adoption and growth is that it’s still too hard.

Case in point: when I left Lawson Software and knew this need existed, my objective was to build a rich, internet application (RIA) layer over the admin portions of open source packages, essentially hiding them from view and giving users a nice interface from which to control all the packages. ONE interface. ONE model and approach….not 3, 5, or more.

Next would be an RIA presentation layer so <insert shocked look on face here> all of these open source packages would actually look-n-feel like a coordinated whole without having to rip the guts out of each package and apply brute force to Cascading Style Sheets in some custom, one-off manner.

I’m holding out hope (and am joining) the Open Solutions Alliance who has an initiative underway to create a target for developers to shoot for and deliver their packages so they can be consumed into an coordinated and orchestrated whole.

We’ve got a ways to go before the Joe Schmedlap’s of the world can bring their own vision for a Web asset to reality.

Where is the Mac OS X for Web applications? There’s a lot of pent-up demand and money out there ready to spend on something that’s useful and can be used and run by Joe and his staff.

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10 Comments

  1. PXLated on April 22, 2007 at 10:23 pm

    I don’t blame Joes for being discouraged but, everything he wants is doable from within one package…None of this Drupal, SocialText, WordPress, Ruby nonsense…
    ———-
    CMS, Blog, Forum, eCommerce (you didn’t mention type or how complex though, that’s a big factor), Online Newsletter (or email lists), Staging/Workflow, CRM (depending on the type of integration)…



  2. Scott Skibell on April 23, 2007 at 10:35 am

    Steve,

    You are absolutely correct, it is still WAY too hard to do this.

    Last summer I was exploring the same thing. I wanted an integrated system that would handle commerce, membership, blogging, and content management tasks. I have yet to find the perfect solution and I’m wondering why this is so difficult.

    I’m surprised a programmer hasn’t done this yet. Leveraging an open source solution like WordPress and building some password management/membership components into it would be a start. I suggest WP because the open API lets all sorts of front-end client writers. This keeps it easy for the contributors. The password management is key. This might be done with different directories utilizing the same theme but I’m not a programmer. I looked at ways to protect certain directories but it was overly complex with all the scripts and WP integration.

    In the end, I ended up going with a membership application. It’s not perfect, but for about $4k it’s pretty solid. I wish I had more design flexibility and that it leveraged WP though. It also came down to support. I felt the company would be behind it and with all the moving parts, that was really important.

    There is a need out there for this. I hope the programmers out there are listening.



  3. Steve Borsch on April 23, 2007 at 10:50 am

    Scott,

    I’ve thought a lot about this problem. Each of the projects I listed in my post I’ve downloaded and installed myself. Clients have (and are) actively using them. Each has their own approach and — since the project teams are working on these in their spare time — even *thinking* about coordinating and orchestrating them with other packages is unthinkable.

    It’s all about leadership and someone, some group, some alliance (and I’m hoping the OSA I mentioned *is* the alliance that pulls this off) needs to point out the benefits NOT to the developers….but to the USERS of the projects.

    The objective of effort in open source isn’t to play around…it’s to get adoption. The more adoption, the faster that other developers will climb on board as the project gains momentum. Being parochial in ones view and approach — without understanding that there is a huge pentup demand in the user community — means that adoption of a project is stunted.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked with people about WordPress and how they want *it* to morph into a content management system with all the attributes of a CMS. But why? Why not coordinate and orchestrate with Drupal and Joomla? Let *them* do what they do best and let Matt and crew make WordPress the be-all, end-all of blogging software.

    It’s why the analysts for years in the enterprise software space promoted suites. Forget “point” solutions that did one thing and did it well….it was all about coordination and orchestration. Software vendors LOVED this advice given to customers since THEY wanted to build suites so as to offensively capture a customer and plant a “maximum footprint” in the account. It was also a great defensive posture since it kept out smaller point solutions from playing.

    That’s why alot of companies bought portals. Then THEY were in charge of selection of best-of-breed solutions and could access the functionality of each solution through portlets in one coordinated and orchestrated view. With that came its own set of problems (interportlet communication, single sign-on) that much of the enterprise world has solved…though at great expense and time.

    So here we are in the small to midsize business (SMB) space with a tremendous number of great solutions….but getting them to sing-off-the-same-songsheet is as hard as an enterprise doing it for themselves.

    Sigh…



  4. Adam Carson on April 23, 2007 at 11:08 am

    Steve,

    Completely agree with the post above…

    But things are getting a little better…

    Check out Blogtronix (www.blogtronix.com) and Lotus Connections for nice ‘out-of-the-box’ suites that are completely integrated and user-friendly. They might focus more on ‘internal’ rather than ‘external’ Enterprise 2.0, but they are a start.

    Adam



  5. kcmarshall on April 24, 2007 at 5:46 pm

    Steve,

    I think you expect too much from OSS (free software) and open source developers (volunteers). Anyone qualified to develop for an open source project of the sort you mention can manage the integration of these different projects in a custom, “one off” manner. This is not missing functionality, this is called “a job”.

    Remember that most open source tools are just that: tools to help a techie do his job. It is pretty hard to find OSS software that is not created for users who don’t very closely resemble in knowledge and skill the creators of that software.

    The great thing about open source is that the…source is open. 😉 If you – a business guy – think that there is a market for a suite like you discuss in your post, make it happen. Define the product, select your component systems, assemble some tech talent and integrate away. Sell it to small businesses at the price point (fairly low) that they can/will pay. Compete on ease of use with OSS and price with fully commercial software.

    Finally, I wonder why Joe is so reluctant to dig into the technology that he thinks will essentially _be_ his product. Surely he didn’t try to stay above the minutia of book publishing and multi-media production back when that was what he sold.

    Kevin



  6. Steve Borsch on April 24, 2007 at 6:19 pm

    “I think you expect too much from OSS (free software) and open source developers (volunteers).”

    Agreed…to a point. An open source project’s intrinsic value is in the volume of adopters. The more people that use it, the more traction it gets on the business side. The more its adopted, the faster other developers come to the project to become involved. And so on and so on and so on until it’s a WordPress clearly taking a leadership position as a blogging tool.

    If the intent of a WordPress is as a blogging *engine* suited only for integration into a content management system or site, why the easy WordPress.com hosting? Curiously, one of the key initiatives Matt Mullenweg has fostered is to make the admin UI so easy that a click-n-configure, power user-centric use of the project could occur. Why would those both happen? TO INCREASE ADOPTION.

    If the intent of a Drupal is as a developer platform, why templates? Civicspace as a higher level implementation? Or other Drupal tools and newbie training?

    “If you – a business guy – think that there is a market for a suite like you discuss in your post, make it happen. Compete on ease of use with OSS and price with fully commercial software.”

    There is a suite like this…almost. Expression Engine from Ellis Labs (http://ellislabs.com/), though they’re not yet out with their commerce engine which — once it is out — would most likely hit what “Joe” wants.

    I’m open source’s biggest fanboy. Like you, anyone who criticizes should get off their ass and do something about it. Like Teddy Roosevelt once said in a speech:

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

    But having YACSP (yet another commercial software package) is missing the point of the entire post. The point is that if Joe wants *any* of these projects discretely, not a big deal. If he wants them as a coordinated group of software offerings that look (and run) like any sort of seamless whole, good luck. Hope his budget is huge and he’s willing to employ alot of people with, as you describe, “a job”.

    That said, ‘Joe’ is unlikely to invest tens of thousands of dollars developing a comprehensive Web asset using a myriad of open source tools that would break the cobbled together Web asset every time one of the individual projects has a dot release…nor trying to train his people on five or more completely different admin and presentation layers. That’s the cold, hard truth.



  7. Matt on April 25, 2007 at 11:29 am

    I actually got here through many accounts… crm, suite 2, etc. I just wanted to point out yet another product that does some of this, but was built from the ground up with wiki, blog, forums, security and more. The public facing part is done by a someone with a web design background, but the administration is done by users. It has been incorporated into public and private sites. http://www.teamelements.com



  8. PXLated on April 27, 2007 at 8:53 pm

    To fill in a bit, Expression Engine is the platform I referred to in the first post without naming it. I use it on most assignments these days but don’t necessarily overtly promote it so am glad Steve did.
    To add to that, while EE is a commercial platform (very low cost), you do receive all the source so you can tinker at will and share those hacks with other users, you just can’t charge and redistribute their code. You can however, develop add-on modules, extensions, or plugins and distribute those, and charge if you like.
    With three full-time developers, a multitude of paid tech support people, source, and a far better security record than either Joomla or Drupal, it’s a steal and a great platform.



  9. Steve Hanson on May 15, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    Why so many packages? Unless there are some specific needs that I don’t see here, it seems to me that Drupal, for example, does all of these things in an integrated way. We do that for our clients. There’s no reason why a Drupal site can’t do all of the things listed in this article.

    With some custom development, it could do it most any way you wanted. But even with the currently available modules, you could do pretty well. I’m sure many of the other content management systems could do the same, I’m just not as familiar with them.



  10. Technology Evangelist on May 23, 2007 at 10:59 am

    Drupal, WordPress, phpBB, and Oscommerce. Oh My!

    Steve Borsch over at Connecting the Dots has put together an extensive look at a common challenge faced by companies trying to pick a platform (or platforms) for their online businesses. His example looks at the challenge of building a…



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Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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