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The next killer app

At the last focus group I attended, one of our subscribers, a CEO of a small company, described how he stayed abreast of breaking news and other information related to his software business. The CEO had two assistants who were responsible for reading trade magazines and other periodicals and clipping out relevant articles.

At the last focus group I attended, one of our subscribers, a CEO of a small company, described how he stayed abreast of breaking news and other information related to his software business. The CEO had two assistants who were responsible for reading trade magazines and other periodicals and clipping out relevant articles. He called the assistants his "clip girls."

To this gentleman and others living in the technology dark ages, I say this: I have seen the future, and it is the enterprise information portal.

In an industry where over-engineering and hyperbole are often a deadly combination, resulting in products that are too complicated or simply dysfunctional, it's nice when software developers actually figure out a way to improve the way we work.

While "enterprise information portal" is a recently coined buzzword, developers have been trying to get their hands around this idea for years. It's a simple concept -- what's the most efficient way to allow users to access, organize and share information?

The road to EIP

At first, it was simply about customizing your screen in a GUI world. Which metaphor do you prefer -- folders or trees or dashboards or something else? Early "portals" were all about moving icons around on your screen.

Then came the groupware craze of the early '90s, which advanced teamwork beyond standard e-mail by giving users the ability to share documents and other data that resided on databases within their corporation.

The Internet made the issue infinitely more pressing, since it forced corporate IT to evolve from a largely internally focused environment to one bombarded by external information -- along with the need to access that content in a time-sensitive manner.

The main issue: how to filter and control that information in a way that makes sense for the individual needs of a company's employees while mapping, or improving, the company's strategic business objectives. In short, help users work better without reinventing the wheel.

The enterprise portal is a conglomeration of many technologies -- workflow, push, chat, search, unified messaging -- that previously fit into one of two categories: "nice technology, lousy concept" or "great idea, poor execution."

For the first time since vendors started talking about these various ways to make my professional life more efficient, they're finally starting to deliver something that makes sense to me as a, gulp, "knowledge worker."

Bye-bye, clip girls

After seeing recent demonstrations from companies such as SageMaker Inc., BackWeb and IBM/Lotus, I can actually say, "Hey, I can use this stuff." I'm starting to see the tangible benefits of a single browser-based interface that includes my inbox, a live feed of press releases and breaking news alerts from various media outlets, a chat option for real-time communication with coworkers, and a link back to any relevant corporate data that can be quickly and easily updated and distributed.

In short, the EIP is the closest thing I've seen to a killer application for the Internet, at least from a corporate standpoint.

There still are pieces that are more hype than substance. I'm not ready -- nor do I think corporations are ready -- to buy into the overarching knowledge management concept of cataloging the different skill sets of every employee within a company and not only opening that information up to everyone, but also keeping it current.

But we're a lot closer to helping employees more easily access the information they need to help them do their jobs better. That's saying something, especially since it puts us closer to the day when a CEO doesn't need clip girls.

Will an EIP change the way you work? Let me know at rob_o'regan@zd.com. Off the Cuff, an online exclusive column, appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.