Web Applications

You’ve gotta read this great post from Ray Valdez – 


He asks the question :

Not to fall completely into cynicism, I grant the possibility that positive outcomes exist: synergistic scenarios in which both the organization and the artifact co-evolve to a better place. My question to you: when and where have you seen this happy circumstance?

We’ve seen this perfect harmony happen with several of our clients – and it usually happens when they are falling behind in the market. When enterprises are starting to lose market-share and are becoming irrelevant to their customers, they start to realize that they can’t “go it alone”. More importantly, they realize they need to change how things are accomplished from the ground up. They look externally not only for help in crafting software, but strategy around how to reshape how they develop and maintain that software internally… Just as companies had to re-think and innovate in the “Web 1.0” world, they become aware that they need to do the same in the new, rich client world.

I had the opportunity to sit and chat with Ray Valdez (gartner analyst) this week. He presented an interesting perspective on adoption of RIA technologies by large enterprises.

We started the discussion by asking Ray how he saw us, and how we should communicate our differentiation to the market – we often find ourselves competing with Avenue A one week, and SAP the next – our clients just know where to “put us” : are we an interactive agency or an integration firm (we’re kinda neither and kinda both)… Ray agreed that we are presented with a challenge, especially with large corporate entities.

The challenge is that we are in this weird RIA place right now – some companies are jumping in with both feet with a platform whereas some are taking a “wait and see” approach. Which Platform? Ray believes Adobe currently has about 50% of the RIA market – he said “I’m being asked to help companies decide between Flex and something else – its always 2, and Flex is always one of them”. He also said the vast majority of enterprises are going to be much slower to adopt. He pulled out a napkin and drew a chart that looked something like this:



Ray Valdez - The RIA Chasm


He described Adobe as being in  a very interesting “Sweet Spot” – where users are demanding rich applications at the same time there is only one true player in the space right now. He said either these enterprises are waiting to see how well Adobe’s platform does, or they are waiting to see what their current platform provider (sun, microsoft, ibm) comes up with.

I believe Adobe’s leadership in the enterprise will rest on enterprise’s ability to execute. In other words, if a company sees one or two “wins” (either internally in pilot projects, or from their competition), Adobe will “win” – The challenge is that RIA, and Flex in particular, require development and design teams to think differently than they have been with traditional web deployments. EffectiveUI’s biggest successes have been those where we’ve been asked to “own the deliverable” – and help companies inch into the space. The projects that struggle a bit are those where an internal development team wants to apply their own legacy HTML/Java/C++ methodologies and thinking to an RIA.

This week I had the opportunity to attend the Gartner Web Innovation Summit. Overall, the sessions were good … I really loved the one by Christine Connors @ Dow Jones on the Semantic Web – With the exception of Christine’s session (which I think was an advanced topic for the folks here) I’ve noticed that the sessions are not asking the audience to take the big steps necessary.


Some background: As we are dealing with larger and larger enterprises, I’m noticing a common conflict brewing. There is a demand from the business to create better user experiences that directly conflicts with the sheer complexity of the legacy systems & IT’s inability to make any progress forward. The truth is that most of these systems are “frankensteins” – 2 year old software bolted on 5 year old software bolted on 10 year old software (even all the way back to 20+ year old vacuum tube systems).  — The question: is your IT group enabled to pull your company into “today”?


Here’s the rub – how do you tell an enterprise to be innovative when business realities are not allowing them to be so. Hell, sometimes large enterprises are struggling to make simple, incremental improvements. And, the truth is most of them are not willing to take the risk and make large scale strategic moves to re-build their infrastructures from the ground up.


So… here we are at the Gartner Summit, primarily geared towards telling big business how to be  innovative… And I’m thinking to myself that these sessions are not really telling these people what they need to hear. I know it is not because of the quality of the analysts – when I meet with them individually they are very bright and have well informed opinions. I’m left feeling (I’m am over stating this for effect) that these analysts have just learned that enterprises are so opposed to change that the best these analysts can do is to incrementally bring enterprise into “this decade” … The bigger issue : change is happening so quickly that every year a business makes what they think is a big change, they are actually falling behind even further. 


Where does this leave us? Ironically, I believe the big winners of tomorrow are the market laggards of today. I think current market leaders in the enterprise are going to be less willing to take risks in areas where their competition may be willing to make them – and given the real value of making large investments in online customer centric initiatives, there is a very real potential to leapfrog.


My humble advice:

  • “Walk the factory floor”. In other words, take the time to talk to your IT folks (not just the managers, but the system analysts, developers, QA personal) … They know what needs to be done to bring you up to date, they know what legacy systems are holding you back. Let them know that you are not passing judgement on “how we got here” – I would say 80% of the fortune 500 is behind the times, and 99% of them have some legacy system skeletons. 
  • Talk to your customers – and involve objective 3rd parties in the process. Do not wholesale put your trust into what 3rd parties tell you – use them to give you insight without ego and another perspective (or even validation for what you have found in your own customer research)
  • Establish metrics for success – let the teams know how you will measure their efforts.
  • Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I’m not suggesting that all your legacy systems need to go (I’m not that delusional) – but put systems in place that starts to abstract the legacy environment from the presentation tier. That way, years from now, you can incrementally replace without having major impacts to the business
  • Get horizontal organization buy-in. Make sure the key stakeholders across the organization departments are all bought in. You may even need to help break down silos and create cross-departmental teams to help.
  • Invest now – Someone in your space is already doing pilots in online customer portals with RIAs or desktop software or employee productivity software…. all of which (if executed on properly) will show positive ROI results in short order.
  • Be patient – innovation is incremental. Gartner suggested that the ROI on these efforts is about 2 years. Don’t place unrealistic demands on release dates because that will force your IT to continue the frankenstein process.

Adobe recently announced Flash search-ability, and it is starting to stir up renewed excitement for the Adobe platform. Neil McAllister at InfoWorld raises a couple of good question on the relevance of Flash content being searchable (view the entire article here):

“if today’s RIAs no longer resemble what we would call the Web, then is shoehorning those applications into the Web’s infrastructure really the right way to go? If application developers feel limited by the constraints of standards-compliant browser technologies, should they really be targeting their applications for the browser?”

I spent some time today chatting with Rebecca, our Chief Marketing Officer, about how she views “Search”. Rebecca did a ton of marketing consulting for large organizations before she joined the EffectiveUI team, and she had some terrific insight to share with me on the subject:

“Marketers are challenged today with how to drive traffic and leads towards their website; search engine optimization has become an attractive (if not the MOST attractive way) of driving qualified leads to your online presence. I always hated (as a marketing consultant) having to recommend to my clients that they had to make a choice between find-ability (search optimized html) and usability/engagement (Flash)”

Rebecca also lead the charge in creating the User Interface Resource Center. One of the core requirements of the UIRC was that its contents be search engine optimized. A recent article posted to the UIRC was an interview with Ethan Eismann, Senior Experience Design Lead for Adobe. After the interview, Ethan poked a little fun at us, asking why the site did not have a few “more engaging” elements (obviously commenting on the lack of any Flash content) – Rebecca’s answer : “If we used Flash, people would not be able to find this article!”. True… until now.

This renewed excitement for search in Flash content begs a much larger question to be asked:

Is Search Always Relevant?

The reality is, as “Web 2.0” starts to live up to its true potential, Search becomes less relevant. There is a major shift happening on the web right now, one that could threaten Search’s dominance. So, what’s the threat?


Search is all about content, and content (contrary to the cliche) is NOT king …..anymore. Describing the internet as a sum of all its content is diminishing its true power. The internet can (and is) so much more. The internet is the new Software Platform – where people not only go to get informed and entertained (view content), but also to pay their bills, collaborate with co-workers, upload and edit photographs, connect with family, manage projects, track sales, and a million other useful things… For all of these services, Search is irrelevant — Let me clarify : Search will not help your customers pay their bill or edit their photograph – it will only help your customers FIND these services. Ultimately, companies that spend the time to provide true online usefulness will be the ones who dominate on the web. (and by the by, Sales Force, 37 Signals, eBay are already dominating because they found a way to extract great utility for their customers).

One of my favorite stories about the responsibility of marketers is one that I heard third hand (not even sure if its true). The story begins with Lee Clow, the Chief Creative Office for TBWA\Worldwide. Lee is a true visionary, and a legend in advertising. Once, a customer of TBWA (a major auto manufacturer) complained to him that their dealership visits were way up, but their sales remained flat. He responded with a simple, blunt and confident truth: “It’s our job to get people in the door, its your job to build a great product”. Search is NOT the answer to all of your online marketing woes – start with creating a better user experience, offering your audience something of real value, and respecting your customer’s time –in other words, build a great product.


Finally, trying to optimize your site for Search can have a negative impact on its usefulness. Optimizing for search is creating your site for another computer to understand and consume. In almost every circumstance, this means you are making compromises to usability in order to make the site more searchable – you are making your product less meaningful in order to drive more traffic through it  (Lee Clow would be ashamed)

Sean Christmann from EffectiveUI has released a benchmark to understand the performance differences between Flex/Flash, Silverlight, and HTML/Javascript….


Great for development teams trying to figure out what framework will perform the best for “real-world” RIA use cases.

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