Web pace finally lets up

Has time run out on the "Web year"?

It appears so, as Netscape Communications Corp., IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. return to more conservative product cycles after two years of frenetic development that saw products upgraded every few months.

This week at Internet World in New York, few major vendors are expected to introduce new product lines. Instead, they will deliver on long-promised technologies and set their sights on componentised additions to their applications.

The reason? Internet developers are finally realizing that corporate accounts need breathing room to integrate Web applications into their enterprises, especially those that have become mission-critical.

"Hallelujah," said Charlie Bonomo, director of clinical information technology at New York's Mount Sinai Medical Center, when apprised of the development slowdown. The medical center recently had to retest an application three times because of rapid browser updates. "This caused us some internal friction," Bonomo said. "We needed to keep testing it against our model desktop."

Netscape, the company that created the "Web year" concept by releasing three versions of the Navigator browser in 18 months, has moved to a 12-month upgrade cycle for its client products and 18 months for its server software.

"The badge of honor that was worn for turning out products every three months has a dark side that was interfering with corporate deployments," said Eric Hahn, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Netscape, in Mountain View, Calif. "So much, so fast, with whizzy-cool features has left customers with battle fatigue."

While major product revisions for users will be fewer, developers aren't standing still. In 1998, Netscape plans to make core changes that will enable it to release smaller, componentised upgrades that in some cases can be automated when a user connects to a local SuiteSpot server.

IBM, in Armonk, N.Y., is following suit with its e-commerce applications. IBM shipped three versions of the Net.Commerce merchant server over the past 13 months. That's unlikely to happen again, because IBM has to support at least five operating systems and about 10 databases with each release, while facing a growing customer base that is not receptive to fast product rollouts.

"Customers are coming back to us and saying, 'Wait a minute, we can't deal with this,'" said Carl Salnoske, IBM's general manager of Internet applications. Instead, Net.Commerce will be updated every 12 or 18 months, though new plug-in components for vertical markets could come out on a more regular basis, Salnoske said.

HP's VeriFone Inc. subsidiary is slowing its pace as well. In the last year, the Redwood City, Calif., unit released three rewrites of its Virtual Point of Sale suite to keep up with changes to the SET (Secure Electronic Transaction) spec. Since SET appears to have stabilised, officials said they expect next year's releases to focus on new platforms rather than on reworking of code.

Sun also is trying to better match its release schedules with those of ISVs and partners, and push Java to a level of maturity required by IT divisions. "Look at JavaBeans," said Jon Kannegaard, vice president of software products at Sun's JavaSoft division, in Cupertino, Calif. "It was done early, and everyone loves it. But Enterprise JavaBeans is 10 times harder [to develop]."

While most corporate users are relieved that the development pace is slowing, others see a double-edged sword. "I still have a lot of needs that need to be met," said Ken Harris, North American vice president of IT at PepsiCo Inc., in Somers, N.Y. "If a vendor does not have what I need, then I hope they move even quicker to get the right thing into my hands."