In this week's look at three topical issues, Robin Bloor and his colleagues consider the website challenge for big software vendors, IT spend in hard times, and advances in speech-recognition technology...One of the surprises in the web content management (WCM) field is that the really big software companies aren't in it yet. That's surprising because the market clearly has huge potential and it's not like CA, Microsoft, Oracle et al to turn up their noses at a potential goldmine. Now, it seems, IBM has decided to join the fray through Lotus. Lotus has announced it is entering the market with a bundled offering: some of its own products, a web content management engine called Aptrix from Presence Online, and services from Accenture. Domino and WebSphere are the main IBM/Lotus contributions to the package. General estimates of the current size of the WCM market put it at about $2bn to $3bn in value and project that it will double over the next three to four years. The trouble with such estimates is they depend on what's counted as WCM sales rather than what's attributable to overlapping fields such as knowledge management and ebusiness. Anyway, whoever heard of a report of a new market that didn't predict massive sales growth? Try to think of a commercial operation of any size that hasn't got a website. You don't have to put a precise number on the organisations that do have websites to know that the total must be in the tens if not hundreds of thousands, particularly if you count websites rather than companies. And all these companies have to manage web content one way or another. Then add up all the claimed customers of the top 10 WCM vendors - you won't get a total of much more than 2,000, and their total revenues won't amount too much more than $2bn. Contrast that installed base with the 35,000 customers IBM claims currently to have for just its web application server, WebSphere. So the untapped potential of the WCM market is huge. It constitutes a sizeable carrot to dangle in front of the software giants, all of whom already have well-established pieces of a 'complete' WCM solution. The IBM/Lotus package takes advantage of Lotus workflow and a common interface to content engines with Lotus databases, allowing the kind of collaboration that is an intimate part of WCM. Now that IBM/Lotus has joined the bandwagon, don't expect the other software giants to be far behind. IT budgets - back to basics As organisations plan their future budgets it's a case of back to basics - no longer wowed by the flashing lights and go faster stripes of so many products in the marketplace, it's return on investment (ROI) that matters. Recent research has shown there will only be a five per cent increase in IT spending in 2002 and that means vendors will be more competitive than ever. Hot favourites for spending are outsourcing, storage, internet-based services, CRM, security and, last but by no means least, ebusiness. Recent events in the US are bound to ensure that infrastructure, backup and disaster recovery all receive a healthy share of budgetary consideration. Not all organisations are likely to be holding the purse strings so tightly. Aside from the massive rebuilding programme that will be required, telecoms operators have to spend in order to keep ahead of the game in an increasingly competitive emerging market. Hardware vendors look like they will have an increasingly difficult time - at a time of belt tightening and focusing on ROI, organisations are unlikely to be willing to commit the capital expenditure and long-term investment nature required for boxes. Accompanying the hardware squeeze is a possible slowdown on operating system spending. With the much vaunted launch of Microsoft's Windows XP due later this month, it will be interesting to see what the take up is of the new OS - has the $1bn marketing spend of Microsoft convinced customers that XP has the bang for their bucks? The good news is that spending will increase. The bad news - from the vendors' perspective at least - is that they are going to have to work harder for their share of the IT budget. It's no longer a case of 'build and they will come', the consumer is king and the vendors who can back up their marketing claim with independent validation and real examples of achieving ROI will be the ones that win. More to speech recognition A couple of weeks ago I wrote about an Israeli-based company, Artificial Intelligence (Ai). It is teaching a speech recognition program to talk. That is, it is attempting to extend this beyond simple speech recognition so that it can actually inter-communicate with its human users. It is doing this by teaching the software to learn speech in the same way that a human child learns to talk. So far, it's reckoned to be at the level of a bright 18-month-old. Now I understand that Sharp has been demonstrating 'Maico' at the Real World Computing exhibition and symposium in Tokyo. Maico is a 3D, 26 year-old virtual female. You can ask her questions about the weather or TV information, such as "What programme is on BBC1 at 9.00 tonight?", and she will tell you. In other words, Maico is a human simulacrum acting as the front-end to a search engine. However, she does more than listen to questions and answer them. In particular, she is intended for use in conjunction with a PC that is video-enabled, so she can respond on a personal basis. Sharp reckons this technology is four to five years away from commercial reality. By this time Ai's child should be grown up too, so a synthesis of these technologies raises interesting possibilities, though perhaps the most obvious image derives from a lot of B-grade science fiction movies. Do we really need this sort of technology? Probably not. But it has to be a marketer's dream, not so much for search engines but more particularly for home networking appliances. Look for it in a store near you, sometime before the end of the decade.