Web 2.0: Business Tools That Save Time, Money

 
 
By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 2007-02-02
 
 
 

Still doubting the power of the Web? Then pick up a copy of Time magazine's "Person of the Year" issue.

The newsweekly bestowed the past year's honor on participants of the "new digital democracy" and highlighted the impact of Web 2.0, the concept of the Internet as a platform for interaction and collaboration, with linchpins like YouTube, Wikipedia and MySpace.

To some, the heralded phrase alludes to user-driven content on the Internet, featuring innovations like wikis (Web sites that allow anyone to edit content) and blogs (journal-like Web entries)—and a departure from the static pages that embody the current state of the Web. Others argue that Web 2.0 simply implies a vision for a better Internet, with the precise definition still evolving.

Most of the hoopla around Web 2.0 comes from consumer circles, but the impact on business is unmistakable. Consider this: Jobs calling for Web 2.0 skills spiked 4,200% from June 2005 to June 2006, according to O'Reilly Media.

So, how do you "do" Web 2.0? First, you need a development framework for building rich Internet applications, Web-based programs that run like they're on a desktop, refreshing page views without resetting the page through the server.

These frameworks come in different flavors, including Flash, a multimedia development platform; and JavaScript, a Web-development language. And developers and managers say they're helping organizations build Web applications faster and cheaper than before.

Just ask Adam Pellegrini. In August 2005, the strategic director for online for the American Cancer Society redesigned the Atlanta-based organization's online bookstore.

The bookstore, built on Adobe Systems' Flex 2, a development environment based on Flash, lets visitors read book descriptions and drag selections into a shopping cart without waiting for a server to refresh the page.

Before using Flex, Pellegrini says the society's Web presence—built on HyperText Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, which had to call back to the server each time a user clicked a different link—wasn't engaging enough. "We wanted something that's really flashy, catches your attention and makes an emotional impression as well as an educational one," he says.

Using Flex made another impression—on the organization's bottom line. Building applications in-house saved the society more than $500,000 in outsourcing costs. And building applications on Flex was 10 times faster on average than their experience with HTTP technology, often reducing weeks of work to a matter of hours.

CLEANING HOUSE

User experience also was vital to Jonathan Jaffe, software development manager with Weitz & Luxenberg, a medical malpractice and personal injury law firm.

For Jaffe, client-server applications were easy to deploy and use; still, they lacked drag-and-drop features and needed to refresh pages from the server. "They didn't offer that immediacy that a rich Internet application offers," Jaffe says.

The firm, a longtime Microsoft shop, began using its .NET application framework four years ago and in 2005 upgraded to ASP.NET, a development platform for Web sites, applications and services. Using the platform, Jaffe and his team rewrote the firm's proprietary enterprise resource planning system, which held more than 100,000 components including client records and accounting applications.

For some major litigation, the firm receives 60 terabytes of medical records and correspondence. To sort through that load by hand would be impossible, according to Jaffe. With the Web-based system, built in 2005, he says lawyers and support staff can search the firm's ERP system—via an interface built into ASP.NET—and instantly obtain case-related details.

Some recent projects with ASP.NET, including an ordering system for medical documents, took about a week to create, Jaffe says. Using older technologies, he says they could have taken six months. And that, he adds, helped save the firm $150,000 in outsourced software development costs.

THE LATEST BUZZ

The newest add-on to ASP.NET has developers buzzing. For most, until a few years ago, the term "Ajax" recalled the household cleaner, the Amsterdam soccer team or, for the more astute, the Greek king in Homer's Iliad. Today, Ajax—short for Asynchronous JavaScript and eXtensible Markup Language, or XML—is a combination of markup and scripting languages for building Web applications that pass small amounts of data with a server, diminishing the need for a Web page to refresh.

Microsoft's ASP.NET Ajax—known to most by its code name, Atlas—is a free framework and toolkit for developing rich Web applications. The offering is one of the latest Ajax frameworks—around 130, to date—competing for market dominance. Experts believe consolidation is on its way, but until then, an abundance of options exist for technology managers and developers.

But Ajax is by no means a new technology. General Interface, acquired by Tibco Software in 2004, began offering an Ajax library in 2001. The combination of its core business—integration software—and Ajax helped Tibco secure Merrill Lynch as a customer.

Earlier this year, Ahmad Fahmy, now a London-based senior technical analyst for Merrill, helped lead a project Stateside to build a service-oriented architecture. One piece involved replacing the front end for a system that managed the firm's voluntary corporate actions—matters requiring shareholder participation, like tender offers or mergers.

Tibco's General Interface framework helped Fahmy and his team integrate the system with Web services, all while using a browser-based development environment. The team finished the interface in two months; without the Ajax library, Fahmy says, it could have taken 18 months.

Still, Fahmy says adjusting to the new technologies can be challenging. For one, developers can face a learning curve, since working inside the browser is a departure from other development environments.

Moreover, business user adoption could be slow. Technology-savvy users will love the new applications, Fahmy says, but less experienced workers might resist applications that have different controls and layouts. For example, some Ajax applications don't have a "back" button that takes a user to the previous page.

"They are going to look at this for the first time and say, 'What is this?'" Fahmy points out. "Things that have become second nature just aren't there."