Innovation around Web 2.0 technologies continues to pick up steam as companies look for ways to cut spending and get more from the solutions they choose. Polly Traylor outlines some of the top cost-effective Web-oriented tools and strategies.
The economic events of the last 12 months have shattered high-stakes technology plans at many companies, but all hope is not lost when it comes to IT innovation. Even before this recession began, startups and established tech firms were rolling out hundreds of open source and Web-based tools, applications, and technologies, changing the nature of the IT industry. A few years ago, for instance, Ruby on Rails was a brand new open source programming tool. Now, it's behind social networking heavyweights such as Twitter and Hulu.
True, there has been plenty of hype in this space. Geoff Feldman, a software developer and consultant based in Boston says, "Calling it "Web 2.0/3.0" is confusing and ultimately not meaningful for any planning purpose because there is no definitive list." But labels aside, Dion Hinchcliffe, an enterprise software consultant based in Alexandria, VA, believes the shift is significant. "Clearly there is something very different happening now. The Web is becoming the dominant platform."
Here's our list of top 10 Web-oriented tools, technologies, and ideas that promise to deliver the most value at the lowest cost.
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1: Back to the basics: Your Web site
In the rush to experiment with social media, community features, and sophisticated online services, it's safe to say that some companies have lost focus. Build a rich, cleanly designed and useful Web site for your customers and they will come. As well, technical skills are still valuable despite the emphasis on "easier" Web development tools. "I think excellent, high quality execution and solid content-full Web sites are going to be the biggest bang for the buck," Feldman says.
2: Web development frameworks (browser, front-end)
Hinchcliffe, who advises enterprise IT clients in the federal government and Fortune 1000, points to several popular tools: Adobe Flash, Adobe Air, Microsoft Silverlight, and to a certain extent, Java. He says the tools have reduced the gap between what your computer and your browser can do."Flash is like a full-blown OS now." And for developers, such as New York City-based Keith Pelletier, these tools make writing code much faster. "The same Web-based, rich, line-of-business applications that took me three months to build five years ago would take me about three weeks now using Silverlight/.NET."
3: Web development frameworks (browser, back-end)
"We are now seeing a clean break from what has come before to develop scalable, secure applications and services with Web 2.0 best practices," Hinchcliffe says. He cites Python and Ruby on Rails (both free) as two top programs. "We call these productivity-oriented frameworks because they can be 10 to 20 times more productive in developing code than older technologies," he says. "That is enormous because when you are developing software, talent is most of the cost."
4: Microsoft SharePoint
Microsoft's collaboration software, which in its early days was a simple document sharing tool, is now chockfull of social networking features, including tools to support blogs, wikis, and a robust interactive community. "In the free version, Windows SharePoint Services, which comes with Windows, you can do BI, reporting, and integration, and it's an entire application development platform as well," says Frank Wilson, a Bellevue, WA-based product manager with Tectura, an IT consulting firm that specializes in Microsoft business applications. Users love the tool because it consolidates information from many applications, and IT loves it because it's a single technology they can use for many purposes, he says.
Software-as-a-service keeps growing and growing and growing, experts and analysts say, with many large companies adding SaaS components to on-premise software installations. Salesforce.com, considered the bellwether of the SaaS industry, reported record revenue of $305 million, up 23% from 2008, in its fiscal first quarter ended April 30, 2009. SaaS is winning favor because it's often 20% cheaper than managing a non-premise application, Hinchcliffe says. "SaaS is on track to be the dominant model for software by 2012. There are still lots of security issues, but the economics are definitely there." The other sweeping advantage is the flexibility that companies gain by rapidly adding new functionality. "The paradigm shift is where you can go acquire a piece of what you need and assemble that into the software that you already own," Wilson says.
6: Cloud computing
Naysayers beware: It's only a matter of time before cloud computing gains its place on center stage. Sure, there are still security and reliability issues — but what aspect of IT doesn't have that today? Cloud services, offered by tech giants such as Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, make it relatively painless and certainly cheaper for a company to add infrastructure than if they were doing it themselves. They also gain best practices from the cloud provider, Hinchcliffe says. If the company decides it doesn't need that extra infrastructure in six or 12 months, it simply cancels the service. That's why enterprise customers are now doing cloud computing pilots , whereas a year ago, CIOs were turning up their noses at the concept.
7: Micro-bloggingUsing social networking sites to broadcast news and other information about your company is a pretty darn cheap and widely acceptable way to engage with your community of partners, customers, and prospects. From the IT management side, there's not much to do — so why not educate your executives about the social Web? "It's virtually free, except for the labor involved, and you have unprecedented reach into decision makers," says Jonathan Jaffe, founder of its-your-internet.com, a New York City-based company that advises organizations on technologies for online marketing. "I know of a company where the CEO answers all the tweets," he says. "This will change because as more people use Twitter these individuals will get bombarded, but now there's a lot of accessibility." IT people are also broadcasting technical problems to the social Web and sometimes getting answers within an hour or two from vendors and experts.
8: Internal social networkingHinchcliffe suggests that companies are best off starting internally when experimenting with social media. For one thing, it's better to make a mistake inside the company than with customers and influencers. For another, employees increasingly prefer to communicate via social media, and now, enterprise social networking tools incorporate security and other requirements that big companies seek. Leading Web-based applications for internal blogs, micro-blogging, mashups, and wikis include Confluence by Atlassian, Socialtext, and the open-source MediaWiki, Hinchcliffe says. Such tools are often available at a fraction of the cost of traditional collaboration products (from companies such as Microsoft and IBM), he adds.
9: Bridging the gap between developers and financeOkay, this isn't a technology but a strategy: IT pros should stay close to the people who hold the purse when they are looking into new applications and projects, as always — even in the "cheap" world of the Web. This tip comes from Dan Bridge, a UK-based developer: "From my point of view, having developed Web applications for the past 13 years, a key issue I've seen everywhere is the communication gap between the financial controller (FC) of the company and the development team members. So my advice is don't focus too much on the buzzwords. Get in synch with your FC and look at your projects from a business point of view."
10: Thinking small
The beauty of Web 2.0 is that you don't have to invest loads of cash or time to experiment. Small projects are often the way to go. In fact, one might say that in today's world of layoffs, small is big. Check out all the social media tools and sites that you can and then consider: Could any of these ideas work in-house or on our public site? "I always say Web 2 is Web do," says Ian Hughes, a Southhampton, UK-based emerging technology consultant. "Get some people to blog for free, get people to have a brainstorm in Second Life, get people to share bookmarks on Delicious. All those test the willingness of the cultural change that needs to happen and that will not be driven by installing any software."