When Boyd Nolan and Tim Jones look into the future, all they see are Web browsers.
Nolan is a lead engineer at Boeing Aerospace Operations and Aircraft Support (http://www.boeing.com), a subsidiary of Seattle, WA.-based The Boeing Corporation. Jones is a Web developer in NationsBanc Montgomery Securities’ Application Architecture Group in San Francisco. Both companies recently decided that all new application development will use the Web browser as the standard interface.
At Boeing Aerospace, Nolan says, “we have started down the path of redeploying all our core systems using Web technology.”
For NationsBanc, “The Web is our deployment platform of choice,” says Jones.
What’s happening at these two companies is by no means unusual. The last year or two has seen an overwhelming trend toward the use of a Web browser as the user interface of choice. And that means that developers must pay close attention to the new crop of Web-based development tools.
Tools, just the facts
The market for Windows-based Web authoring products is expected to grow by more than 32% a year between now and 2002, according to Joan-Carol Brigham, a research manager in Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Corp.’s Internet program. More than six million products will be sold in 2002, IDC predicts (see chart, “Growth of Web authoring tools“).
As in other realms, Microsoft dominates much of the low-end market here: 50% of NT server customers are active users of FrontPage, according to IDC. And Microsoft, Netscape, and other major vendors will continue to bundle tools for creating simple Web pages for free.
But the continued success of other tools “shows that ‘free’ doesn’t always mean ‘better'” says Dan Keldsen, webmaster at the Delphi Group, in Boston.
As far as HTML development is concerned, no matter which tool you choose, one thing is certain: As the amount of information published in the form of Web pages continues to grow–both on intranets and on the Internet–so will the demand for HTML authoring tools.
Which will it be: HTML vs. XML, or HTML and XML
There is one uncertainty on the road ahead though: The future of HTML itself. XML (eXtensible Markup Language), which allows you to encode much more information in a document, has been widely discussed as HTML’s successor.
Already, Netscape’s next version of its Navigator browser–due later this year–will read XML. And XML is starting to appear in other tools, such as San Francisco-based Autonomy’s Agentware Knowledge Server. This tool can automatically add XML tags to documents so they can be retrieved by search engines or knowledge management applications.
But HTML–with its millions of pages on the Web, and countless more on corporate intranets–is not likely to disappear anytime soon. This has left vendors and industry groups such as the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), which is responsible for the HTML standard, wrestling with the relationship between XML and HTML. One possibility proposed at a recent W3C conference on the future of HTML, is to update the current HTML standard with a new version, which would be based upon a suite of XML tag-sets, essentially making HTML a subset of XML.
But focusing on XML merely as a replacement for HTML misses the point, says David Megginson, a member of the World Wide Web Consortium’s XML working group and author of Structuring XML documents (Prentice-Hall, 1998 [http://www.prenhall.com]). While HTML is an easy way for humans to publish information on the Web, XML’s strength is that it lets applications talk with each other. In fact, says Megginson, most XML will be invisible to end users.
XML’s big advantage, according to Megginson, is that it can be used to create specific sets of tags for specific tasks or industries. Already, standards have been agreed upon for mathematical and chemical symbols, and groups ranging from automotive engineers to librarians to the Newspaper Association of America have standards in the works. The standards with the widest impact will likely be those for electronic commerce and EDI, where Megginson predicts some consensus will emerge within the year.
Coming out from behind the firewall
Another change that promises to make life easier for both intranet developers and users is the growing acceptance of directory services based on open standards such as LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol).
An open directory service will save users the annoyance of having to log in first to the network, and then to each separate application they want to use. For developers, it means not having to write custom code to authenticate users for each application.
But security becomes more complicated as companies start allowing business partners or customers access to corporate data by extending their applications onto an extranet. “Right now, we’re pretty well hidden behind our firewall,” says NationsBanc’s Jones. “But as we start doing business with some of our external clients, security will become a big issue.”
According to Howie Spielman, director at Viant (http://www.viant.com), an Internet consulting company based in Palo Alto, there is a ground swell of support for LDAP, with vendors “making positive statements about supporting it in their upcoming releases.” But, he adds, “they’re vague about how they’re going to get there.”
Spielman contends that full, seamless integration between applications and directories is still perhaps two years away. Until that time, some custom coding is likely to be required to synchronize applications with a central directory (see the related story, “Network directories grow up” in the March 1998 issue of PlugIn Datamation.)
Links to the past
While standards like XML and LDAP make it easier to build new applications using Web-based technology, developers still have to deal with their base of existing legacy applications. Many of these are not used often enough or are not mission-critical enough to warrant rewriting them completely for the Web. In many cases, however, simply providing a browser front-end will suffice.
Boeing Aerospace, for example, uses FTP to transfer a file containing information on approved suppliers from a Boeing corporate mainframe, and then displays the data to users with Web browsers using a Visual Basic program. And NationsBanc uses a Java applet and a software driver from NetDynamics to make a marketing calendar on an AS/400 available to users with Web browsers.
A number of vendors offer tools to automate the process of making legacy data or reports accessible through Web browsers. Report.Web from Network Software Associates in Arlington, Va., makes mainframe reports available through a Web browser, while Simware, of Ottawa, Canada, Active Software, of Santa Clara, Calif. and other vendors, allow users to actually replace the 3270 terminal screens on mainframe applications with a browser interface. And IBM, with its VisualAge for Java and Component Broker, lets you build applications that can tie together data from a variety of disparate legacy systems.
The next few years will likely see the continuation of another trend in tools for developing intranet applications: Software vendors offering a wide range of tools for application development that include everything from server software to development environments.
Netscape’s Application Server, for example, offers tools to build, deploy, and manage intranet applications, and Microsoft’s Visual InterDev Enterprise Edition includes a developer version of SQL Server, as well as tools for data modeling, debugging, and source code control.
This works well for Boeing Aerospace, which uses an all-Microsoft environment on its intranet. “We have a small development group,” says Nolan, “which is expected to develop a lot of applications. We don’t have time to work out the details of connectivity between products from different vendors. The Microsoft tools integrate fairly seamlessly.”
But not everyone wants to buy everything from one vendor. “I don’t believe that one tool that does everything exists,” says NationsBanc’s Jones. “We want to be able to decide what the best of breed is for each particular type of tool.”
For this to work there needs to be adherence to open standards. “We would really like to see everybody play together,” says Jones. “If we go with a particular application server, we want to know that we’ll still be able to use the development environment we’ve picked, Visual Café,” from Symantec in Cupertino, Calif.
Intranet vs. Internet
By and large, many of the issues–like open standards–affecting the future of intranet development will be the same issues that Internet developers must face. There are a few differences: “You don’t have to worry about a million visitors coming to your intranet,” says Viant’s Spielman.
An intranet generally also offers more control over the client environment than on the wide-open Internet. Boeing Aerospace “didn’t have the time to test all our applications” for both Netscape and Microsoft browsers, says Nolan, so it standardized on Microsoft Internet Explorer version 4, as did Nationsbanc.
But even on an intranet, a consistent environment can’t always be taken for granted. “I’ve seen big corporations that could never get a handle on what software they had in-house,” says Spielman. “Plain users might want one thing, power users something else.”
Some technologies are likely to see use sooner in the relatively protected environment of an intranet before gaining widespread use on the wider world of the Internet. Digital signatures, for one, probably won’t be adopted anytime soon for use on the Internet, says the Delphi Group’s Keldsen, but “it’s a great technology for use in the controlled environment of an intranet.” Digital signatures can be used in workflow applications, for example, when a manager might need to sign off on a purchase requisition.
One thing is certain in a world where the pace of change is dictated by “Internet time.” Whether you’re developing Web-based applications for the intranet or the Internet, things are not going to slow down. “It’s not like the old days of Fortran applications,” sighs Boeing’s Nolan, “when you didn’t have to worry about the technology changing on you from month to month.” //
Dan Orzech is a Philadelphia-based writer specializing in technology. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and many computer industry publications.
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