Software makers go portal crazy

Portals -- not the kind you're thinking of -- could be the hot ticket in Web programming.

Move over, operating systems. The next software development platform may have a whole lot more to do with the Net. Indeed, some of the biggest software players -- including IBM, Microsoft and Oracle -- are positioning portals as next-generation development platforms.

These development portals are not to be confused with Yahoo!, Excite and other popular Internet destinations. Instead, development portals could become programs in their own right. In this scenario, the program would present dynamic data to viewers and interact with them. Think of it as a cross between dynamic e-commerce sites and application-service-provider offerings. Using the next-generation portal approach, e-business resellers might be able to design flexible, ever-changing Web sites for their customers.

Next-generation portals will consist of object-style components and dynamic data links. For developers, that means working less with a server's underlying database, or operation system, and more with the portal itself as an application framework.

Can it be done? "Portals have been around since the Web's been around," says Brian Kalita, a senior analyst with market-research firm The Aberdeen Group. "But to date, there's been a great difficulty when attempting to build unified sites."

On the positive side, some of the biggest names in development tools think they can simplify Web application development. But it remains unclear whether these portal-centred applications will offer cross-vendor interoperability.

IBM, for one, is bullish on the portal concept and is prepping tools to get a jump on the market. Last week, the company advanced its Application Framework for eBusiness strategy, announcing plans to bolster its Visual Age For Java and WebSphere tools. IBM also has fortified its tools with more XML and back-end database connectivity.

Microsoft is taking portal platform steps, too. In recent days, the company has expounded on its Megaservices concept. Megaservices are software components that offer services to users, like Microsoft Passport single sign-on, as well as forthcoming third-party components, like tax and catalogue services.

Not to be left out, Oracle has unveiled its Portlet Framework, which is built around the idea of Java components. These components, known within Oracle as "portlets", are sets of Java classes that form a "wrapped" piece of an existing app or a Web site. Oracle claims these classes will be able to interface with any back-end platform, such as an Oracle database or a third-party legacy mainframe app. In theory, these can be developed with any Java tool-though Oracle likely will push its own WebDB for such development jobs. Oracle's Portlet Framework will provide single sign-on to any LDAP directory, as well as access to Web services like discussion groups, calendaring, searches and the like. Some of those services will be built into the framework by Oracle; others will come from third parties.

While IBM, Oracle and Sun Microsystems, among others, continue to rely on Java as the glue to keep front- and back-end products together, Microsoft is pinning its hopes on Soap, a protocol that "extends" HTTP and XML. Soap currently is in draft review with the Internet Engineering Task Force. Microsoft, RogueWave, DevelopMentor and a growing list of other companies are backing Soap as a way to communicate across object models.

Some critics question whether these portlets and megaservices are anything more than new names for Enterprise Java Beans, ActiveX controls and other packaged objects. Aberdeen's Kalita, for one, expects the new portal application programming interfaces (API) to work at a higher level of abstraction than existing APIs. Thus, in theory, novice developers will be able to snap together preexisting components to develop dynamic portals.

To be sure, plenty of questions remain about portals. It's unclear whether Oracle's components will register with Microsoft's framework. Likewise, it's too early to say whether IBM's partners will be able to write services that communicate seamlessly with services tailored for Microsoft's portal.

Vendors claim interoperability will be the order of the day. Only time will tell whether vendors will live up to their interoperability claims-and whether portals truly pay off for savvy developers.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols contributed to this story.