Web 2.0 entering corporate world slowly

Practices and technologies from the public-facing Internet have great potential but face challenges, executives say.

Culture
TYSON'S CORNER, Va.-- Notions of Web 2.0 are creeping inside corporate firewalls, but companies still lag consumers in adoption of those technologies because of system complexity and concerns of control, said speakers at the New New Internet conference here on Wednesday.

Technologies such as AJAX-style Web development, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) and blogs are being used within businesses, typically in small-scale or experimental deployments. The social aspects of wikis, tagging and Web-enabled social networking can also improve collaboration among workers, speakers said.

"Web 2.0 for business is all about the consumerization of IT."
--Rajen Sheth, product manager at Google Enterprise

In the past when it came to adopting new technology, corporations were on the leading edge and consumers were underserved. That's all turned around now, said Rajen Sheth, product manager at Google Enterprise.

"Web 2.0 for business is all about the consumerization of IT," Sheth said.

Inside Google, for example, the company is using hosted applications designed for consumers. The company uses Web-based Gmail and employees typically maintain huge, searchable e-mail databases. To promote ad hoc networking, each employee has a profile page where they keep information on ongoing projects, Sheth said.

The consumer market is influencing corporate sales as well. Technology vendors targeting corporations are using the try-before-you-buy marketing techniques used with consumers.

Rather than a long sales process aimed at IT executives, products are increasingly being brought in by employees, who may have tried a service at home first. And in contrast to most enterprise applications, Web 2.0 products are simple and focus on a few features rather than many, Sheth said.

"Google Apps for Your Domain (a bundle of hosted applications) is our first take at software as a service and letting businesses leverage our (data center) infrastructure. A lot of those applications are focused on collaboration," he said.

But a panel of technology executives argued that the business customer represents significantly different needs. By their nature, corporations have more complex situations than the individual consumer, panelists noted.

"The currency is different in consumer applications. Individual consumers want to save time and be more productive. In business, you're trying to make a group more productive," said Christian Heidelberger, CEO of Nexaweb Technologies. Nexaweb makes tools for building so-called rich Internet applications, which have an interactive graphical user interface.

In addition, corporations have thorny integration issues dealing with already-installed monolithic applications, panelists said. For example, populating a wiki with information from a customer support system could require hand-coding and ongoing maintenance chores.

Front-end tools for interactive Web platforms, such as AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML), Flash and Adobe's Apollo, will make it easier for businesses to use Web standards and technologies to get to back-end data, panelists said.

"Now the applications have gotten to the point where you think, 'If my 14-year-old son can do it, I can probably figure it out.'"
--Jeff Crigler, CEO of Voxant

As of now, many Web 2.0 applications, such as hosted versions of desktop applications, have an inherent limitation in that they don't function if the network goes down, said Dion Hinchcliffe, chief technology officer of consulting firm Sphere of Influence and author of the Enterprise Web 2.0 blog.

David Temkin, CTO of Laszlo Systems, countered that consumers are increasingly familiar with hosted applications.

"People get accustomed to this kind of delivery of applications. They expect the same in the workplace," Temkin said. "What's happening in the consumer space is making people comfortable with the trend."

Control issues
Allowing employees to share information through blogs or mashups with outside Web services poses significant security challenges for corporate customers, speakers said.

Promoting ad hoc collaboration and multiple modes of communication can be beneficial, but employees need policies and IT administrators need tools to govern those policies, said John Crupi, CTO of JackBe, which makes AJAX tools.

"At Sun, where I used to work, we blogged and we had one rule: Don't be stupid," said Crupi. "I don't think there is one answer but there has to be a way to figure how to govern (communications) while encouraging it."

Corporations, in general, are also leery of working with Web start-ups. And many Web 2.0 business models are not fully proven.

"There's an element of this that feels like, frankly, Web 1.0--we've got this great idea, wouldn't it be wonderful to make money from it," said Temkin. "Using social networks as features on any applications, for example. That's great but how does it get monetized? It's a question not answered right now."

Still, many Web 2.0-style services are bound to make it into corporations, speakers said. That's because there is a great deal of innovation in the public-facing Web, and tools to help individuals build Web applications are getting more powerful.

Large vendors, such as SAP, Microsoft and IBM, are eyeing these technologies and collaboration techniques and will eventually build them into their enterprise products, according to analysts.

"The pendulum swings every few years between how much central control IT has," said Jeff Crigler, CEO of Voxant, a news syndication company.

"What's different now is that it used to be expensive and technically very challenged to do your own thing. Now the applications have gotten to the point where you think, 'If my 14-year-old son can do it, I can probably figure it out,'" he said.

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