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Simplicity out of complexity

Venture capitalist Andreas Stavropoulos says the next rung up software's evolutionary ladder will mark a huge leap forward with big implications for information technology's future.

The CIOs of U.S. businesses are having a tough time these days.

The world of information they are asked to manage is becoming more complex all the time. For one, handheld and mobile devices proliferate; whether they're hanging from our belts or tucked in a coat pocket, chances are most of us have come to depend on cell phones, PDAs and an assortment of "smart" gadgets to keep us plugged in to the information flow.

For another, the velocity of information has greatly increased as new software packages and, more importantly, new business processes are implemented to cope with real-time data availability. The challenge of maintaining such real-time information views--that is, ones that are complete, current and consistent across different IT systems--is significant: It often requires a major overhaul or rebuilding of a business's information infrastructure.

At the same time, the "walls" of enterprises are falling: Software-enabled horizontal and vertical intra-enterprise collaboration cuts across traditional functional silos. Business partners, sellers and customers are allowed selective access and control over the enterprise's resources, linked by collaborative commerce, supply-chain optimization, applications, and so on.

Taken together, these trends add up to some major headaches for the IT department. One's headache is another's opportunity to sell aspirin, however.

The world of software is not standing still. Out of all this complexity arises a set of new infrastructure, applications, tools and frameworks (call it "metaware") that restores order by abstracting some of the complexity away. Ideally, this metaware should be:

• Smart: allowing intelligence to live at the edge of the network;
• Transparent: able to operate seamlessly on heterogeneous platforms;
• Well-behaved: the pieces know how to discover and interact with one another;
• Discreet: processing exceptions elegantly--not blowing up if pieces fail;
• Portable: easily repurposed for various endpoints.

In this sense, metaware is just the next rung up the software evolutionary ladder, a leap forward similar to the move from hardware-dependent programming environments (like assembly language) to the first higher-order languages like Fortran and Algol, or the introduction of object-oriented methodologies.

Each step up this ladder of abstraction allows increasingly more powerful constructs to be defined that can be reused in multiple contexts, thus significantly reducing the costs and simplifying the process of putting together complete software solutions.

The move toward such higher-level abstraction constructs is evident across all layers of the software stack of the future, which, in turn, creates opportunities for start-ups. In the infrastructure layer, things like XML and Web services are enabling the distribution of intelligence across the network. Companies like Ipedo, with their XML database and XML cache, are achieving orders of magnitude in performance improvement over relational database approaches in propagating dynamic, personalized content across the network.

Similarly, companies like KnowNow and Kenamea were recently funded to create "application routers" for a world where Web services are the default mechanism for business-to-business information sharing and collaborative value creation.

In the application layer, metaware companies translate business needs directly into solutions, hiding the complexity involved in managing heterogeneous devices or transport layers. An example is Centerpost, which allows its customers, like Travelocity, to manage their customer relationships seamlessly across any type of communication device by defining the context of the interaction and the expected actions, and then letting Centerpost worry about delivery endpoints, message escalation, and so on.

In the platform layer, old concepts like agent-based computing and business object frameworks (examples are companies like Agentis and Elegiant) are re-emerging. Such companies build metaware that allows enterprises to rapidly configure complex interactions with their customers while maintaining the consistency of information across systems at all times. The pieces of their software interact with one another at run time, effectively creating dynamic workflows and information paths through a business's systems.

The alternative would be to hardwire in software all the different permutations of workflows and business rules, which is expensive, takes a long time, and limits the potential for rapid future innovation.

The incumbents are also jumping on the metaware bandwagon. Microsoft is trying to become a standard fixture of the XML Web services infrastructure through its .Net and HailStorm initiatives. Sun has announced Sun ONE (Open Net Environment) as its response, and more is expected.

The battlefield is just now being drawn for prizes that could be huge. From the investor's perspective, we are looking for contenders that are ready to join the fight.