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.
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.
About Steve Borsch
Connecting the Dots Podcast
Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.