Friday, December 14, 2007

Why Corporations Don’t Trust RAD – the dBase III Syndrome

I spoke yesterday to one of my favorite corporate architects. I was pitching WaveMaker, the latest and greatest in a long line of Rapid Application Development platforms. In response, he was reminiscing about the “dbase III syndrome” as an example of what is wrong with RAD solutions in general.

The dBase III syndrome is the observation that small productivity apps built with RAD products morph over time into big complex apps. Once they have outgrown capabilities of a particular RAD solution, companies lose more time porting the app into a new tool than they saved using RAD to begin with.

He continued, “I have been pitched recently by several enterprise software vendors offering tools for building Rich Internet Applications based on big, heavy, nasty proprietary frameworks. No development package lasts forever. I need a cost effective exit plan to get off of a tool that feeds into my Total Cost of Ownership for that tool.”

In short, the lock-in costs of these frameworks outweighs any short term productivity benefits. Our goal with WaveMaker is to provide the productivity of a traditional RAD/visual builder product, coupled with a pure Java deployment framework that prevents the lock-in of traditional RAD approaches.

Getting this right will open up a huge market of architects burned by the dBase III syndrome in the past.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The WaveMaker Genie Is Unleashed!

We launched our new WaveMaker product last week in Boston. At its worst, a product launch tour can be a mind-numbing exercise in navigating the Mass turnpike while regurgitating at regular intervals an adjective-laden product pitch to barely conscious industry pooh-bahs. These soporific meetings are puncuated with frequent stops at Dunkin' Donuts (apparently the only chain allowed in suburban Massachusetts) for undercooked donuts and overcooked coffee.

Our tour last week wasn’t like that. Mostly because our story is simple – building web apps is too hard – and our solution is equally simple – a visual development tool that generates pure Java apps that run in any Java platform.

The best meeting of the week was with Judith Hurwitz, who wrote a great blog posting on our product launch, asking Is WaveMaker the Web 2.0 version of Powerbuilder? How often does a seasoned analyst describe a company meeting as fun!? Judith said:
Some meetings are just fun (I can’t always say that..sometimes I just want to run away and hide under my desk). But my meeting today with WaveMaker reminded me of the type of meetings I had in the .com days. I admit I was excited about what I heard.
I also had an interview with Jason Meserve of Network World on the launch of the WaveMaker product. This 15 minute podcast gives a good overview of our strategy and you can listen to it here. Finally, Paul Krill of InfoWorld had a good product write-up here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Open Source Talent Drain - How Success Can Hurt Open Source Projects

I am attending the 451 Group Conference in Boston this week. Raven Zachary, the Open Source analyst for the 451 Group, led a session on the future of open source.

One issue Raven raised was the difficulty of scaling a successful open source project once it has become successful. The hallmark of a successful open source project is that the lead contributors hit the trade show circuit while big players like IBM cherry pick key project contributors to bolster their own offerings.

Raven gave the example of the Tomcat team, where a number of key contributors have been hired away, leaving the team roughly the same size it was 5 years ago, despite vastly higher usage and community needs. The solution would seem to be a model where the contributors could make enough money to keep working on the project as it becomes more successful (aka the JBoss model).

For long-term success, it may be that an open source project must be financially successful enough to cherry pick its own best contributors. Ruby on Rails may be the anti-example to this strategy, so it will be interesting to see how they handle their own success long term.

A related problem is that once an open source project is successful, its contributors can command significant consulting fees for doing work that others could do if the product had better documentation or usability. There is an odd negative incentive here, where making an open source product more user-friendly could cost the core contributors money. In the worst case, the incentive is to add cool but half-baked features so you have more stuff to talk about at conferences.

Some other interesting points from Raven's talk:
  • Simplest definition: open source is community supported software that is freely available on the internet and which has minimal restrictions on redistribution. A more complete definition is here. Many popular open source products don't exactly fit this definition, so open source is at some level a business positioning as well as a development and distribution model.
  • Support and services model is most accepted: customers are loathe to pay license fees to "upgrade" a supposedly free thing. I'm not so sure this is the whole story. I had a subsequent discussion with David Skok at the conference, and he felt the key to JBoss' success had been their ability to upsell management software to JBoss users on a subscription basis, taking their ASP from $10K to $50K.
  • Vendor opportunity to reduce stack complexity: customers are struggling with how to manage 15 different open source vendors, each with its own licensing and support community. A related issue is how to handle integration issues between these products, an area being addressed by companies like Red Hat and SpikeSource. Our own WaveMaker product integrates over two dozen open source applications, so this trend is both real and accelerating.

Monday, November 19, 2007

When a rose by any other name is a clunker: when and how to rename your startup

Making the decision to name a company is always difficult. Making the decision to re-name a company adds even greater complexity.

After nine months as ActiveGrid, we decided to rename the company WaveMaker. Our board asked tough questions about our motivations, making us think long and hard about what was wrong with the current name and what we could accomplish with a new name.

How to tell if your name needs changing:
  1. Customer misdirection. A bad name makes people believe things about your company that are not true. For example, our name, ActiveGrid, implied we had something to do with grid computing, which we did not. That meant that every conversation would start out but explaining that our name was ActiveGrid but we had nothing to do with grids.

  2. Employee alignment. Another negative effect of a bad name is to distract employees. A name that implies they should be doing something else makes it hard to keep everyone's eyes on the same ball.

  3. Analyst fatigue. In sort of a tech version of "three strikes, yer out" a name that has been associated with a number of grandiose but never achieved visions starts to become a PR team's nightmare. No matter how compelling the next vision, press and analysts may just not be willing to get suckered yet again.
Having decided to rename, you now face the renaming process. We decided to go with a naming firm that did both the naming and graphic work (we worked with SB Master of Master McNeil and she did an outstanding job)
  1. Identify your market: who do you want to know about your name? If you don't know who you are selling to, any name should be fine. Once you know your target audience, make sure the name is one that will resonate with them.

  2. Crystallize your story: what attributes define you and make you unique? What do you enable? Think not just about nouns but also verbs

  3. Brainstorm like crazy: the most naming fun I ever was with Persistence Software, where we had a nice dinner party with lots of wine, then each picked books, opened them to random pages and picked 4 company names from each page. The name Persistence came from a book of Yeats poems.

  4. Make sure you have multiple viable names: just having a name doesn't mean you can own it. You still have trademarking and url-ing to go. Of the two, checking the trademark is easier (you can do it here

  5. Beg, borrow or buy the URL. Every imaginable url is taken at this point. At the end of the day, we had two names that would work. Of course there were squatters on both urls: one wanted $35K, one settled for $10K, but only after we got to the point where if we didn't get a deal that day, we would have just kept ActiveGrid

  6. Spend for a good logo and color scheme. After all this work, you would be crazy not to get a good logo, color scheme and powerpoint template.

  7. Change everything. Now the fun begins. Change your collateral, business cards, the lobby sign, the web site. Then take a long vacation.
As you might expect, there is some good stuff about naming on the web, by Guy Kawasaki, Dharmesh Shah and a post on where famous company names came from.

We won't know for some time whether all this work has paid off. But the day we re-launched WaveMaker with our new name we hit a whole new energy level in the business. Now we've just got to turn that energy into results!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Nobody ever got fired for choosing open source?

Last week, Wavemaker Software and BSG Alliance hosted a CIO panel titled, CIO survival guide for Web 2.0. The CIO panel included Jim Sutter, former CIO of Xerox, Lila Tretikov, CIO of SugarCRM, Max Rayner, CIO of TravelZoo, Steve Douty, President of BSG Applications and former CIO of Hotmail, Larry Singer, former CIO of the state of Georgia and Andrew Aitken, CEO of the Olliance Group.

Today, Matt Asay posted a great summary of the WaveMaker/BSG CIO panel on his CNet Open Road blog, under the title, Any CIO Not Using Open Source Should Be Fired. It used to be that the safe choice was going with the the big enterprise companies and their big ticket proprietary software. A killer combination of low upfront cost and speed of innovation in open source software is causing CIOs to feel like open source is becoming the safer bet.

I posted my own summary of the event on the WebGuild site under the much less flashy title of What CIOs Think About Web 2.0. The net of all this discussion is that CIOs are very open to the value that new technologies can bring in democratizing the development of web applications.

So far, the tools for web development have been primarily in the hands of expert programmers working in core IT. Web 2.0 offers the promise of bringing easier to use web development tools to the edge of the organization, enabling more innovation at the edge of the corporation.

To help make this happen, the CIO's job will be to provide core infrastructure that enables innovation at the edge while preventing unintended damage. WaveMaker's role in this market shift is to provide a development platform that enables visual assembly of web applications at the edge that comply with core IT standards for security, data and governance.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Ready to Make Waves

Although the computer industry is still young, we have already seen several waves of development tools. These waves follow technology and architecture trends: new technologies like the PC make new architectures possible, like client/server, which in turn require new tools, such as PowerBuilder.

Each wave of development has had a distinctly character - either logic-based or visually based. The tools to support each of these waves have been tailored correspondingly.

While the last 8 years have been dominated by thin-client architectures and code-based tools for expert users, the rich client technologies and collaborative user expectations behind Web 2.0 argue strongly that a new wave of development tools is beginning.

Here is my take on the four big development waves:
  1. Green screen (1960-1990): centralized development with code-based Cobol tools

  2. Client/server wave (1991-1997): departmental development with visual-based tools like PowerBuilder, Notes, Access, Oracle Forms.

  3. Thin client wave (1998-2007): centralized development with code-based Java tools

  4. Rich client wave (2008+): Web 2.0 democratizes development and dramatically opens up both the responsiveness and functionality of the client with an avalanche of Internet-based widgets and services. Can today's code-based tools targeting expert Java and C# developers ride this wave? History would say no.
It is hard to remember today - when all the development tools are code based - that all the client/server development tools were visually based. Ten years ago, visual tools like PowerBuilder and Notes dominated the development world. Now, the programming world has shrunk to just two code-based tools - Eclipse and Microsoft Studio.

We believe that the industry stands on the edge of a new wave of computing, driven by the Rich Internet Application architecture. Web applications are moving from static, limited html pages to much more responsive and powerful widgets and services.

The explosion of widgets and services available on the Internet is driving a demand among business users for more useful business applications. As thing client applications get more visual, coding tools like Eclipse and Microsoft's mis-named Visual Studio are increasingly awkward.

To underline this point, a recent customer was able to re-build an application in our visual tools using 98% less code than in .NET/Visual Studio. Note that it is important for visual tools to support coding for advanced services - we are not advocating code-free development, just code-lite development, particularly for visual web applications.

After nine months of hard work, we are ready to start making waves. Over the next month, we will be introducing a product that will launch the next wave of enterprise computing. Our vision is to be the Powerbuilder of Web 2.0.

To underline our commitment to this vision, we have changed the company name to WaveMaker. And that is exactly what we intend to do!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Why Dojo 1.0 Matters - Ajax Now Enterprise-Ready

You can't swing a dead cat at a Web 2.0 conference these days without hitting a dozen Rich Internet Application (RIA) toolkits. The Olliance Group recently identified 58 RIA products, many of them either proprietary or incompatible with the other 57 approaches.

Just to set the stage, here is my personal definition for a Rich Internet Application:

"Rich Internet Applications match the responsiveness of traditional desktop apps by minimizing web page refreshes. RIA taps into the collective power of the Internet to supply widgets and services for building web clients, like rss feeds, Google maps and Youtube. The goal of RIA is not merely to emulate a PC GUI in a browser (aka the Silverlight sell-out), but to deliver browser-based clients which far outperform PC GUIs in speed and functionality."

Ajax* is a particular architecture for building RIAs that is favored by open source libraries such as Dojo, Jquery, Ext and dozens of others. The perpetual flamewars between adherents of the various Ajax toolkits is a huge gift for the proprietary RIA products like Microsoft Silverlight and Adobe Flex.

Many Ajax toolkits seem more focused on posting esoteric animated graphics widgets to the Ajaxian web site than they are on meeting mundane but critical enterprise needs. To be fair, whizzy graphics are an important element of RIA's appeal. However there are more fundamental concerns to address before RIA can be considered enterprise-ready.

Into this maelstrom of splintered efforts comes the Dojo 1.0 release. Dojo has been in development for 3 years, making it one of the more mature toolkits available. Dojo also has the backing of IBM, BEA and Sun and will ship standard with their Java servers.

Previous versions of Dojo were criticized as being too big and too slow. Dojo 1.0 attempts to address those issues. Even more importantly, Dojo has also addressed a number of the hard issues required to gain enterprise adoption:
  1. Internationalization and accessibility: Dojo supports localization, keyboard navigation and vision-impaired users, making it appropriate for both global businesses and government applications.

  2. Excellent data handling: the Dojo grid (plug: built by ActiveGrid's own Scott Miles and Steve Orvell) easily handles 100,000+ rows with dynamic loading and complex rows, making it suitable for building the most data-intensive web clients.

  3. Interoperability: Dojo supports the OpenAjax hub, making it possible for an enterprise to integrate and support web applications built with different Ajax toolkits.

  4. Corporate look and feel: Dojo supports the ability to define a corporate look and feel or skin that can be used across a set of applications.
Although choice in general is good, no CIO wants to be stuck supporting a dozen squabbling Ajax toolkits a year from now. Dojo 1.0 may not be the ultimate winner, but it sets clear expectations for what an enterprise-ready Ajax toolkit should be able to do.

*Ajax is an acronym for Asynchronous Javascript And XML (only the acronym Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Aparatus can approach Ajax in shear implausibility).

Friday, October 26, 2007

A kinder, gentler open source CEO

CEO dinners are usually pretty airless affairs - when you get that many egos in one room, there's not much room left for oxygen. Open source CEOs are a different bunch. They don't have that kind of rabid/scary elevator pitch thing going where they have to convince you in 15 seconds or less to give them all your money.

This week I attended an Open Source CEO dinner put on by Andrew Aitken of the Olliance Group and Mark Radcliffe of DLA Piper. What struck me at this dinner was how relaxed and interesting it was.

Following the management maxim, "the fish rots from the head down" I conclude from my dinner that the open source industry itself is a kinder, gentler place. Here are a few thoughts on why this would be so:
  • Collaboration is a business mindset. Open source CEOs don't see every other CEO/company as an enemy in their zero-sum strategy to take over the known software universe. They bring a community-minded approach not just to their technical work but also to their business activities.
  • Open source popularity is based on customer pull, not PR push. The popularity of an open source company is measured by SourceForge, not by amount of hot air emitted by the CEO and their PR machine. I don't meant to imply that these CEOs cannot be as arrogant as their proprietary brethren, just that they don't get the opportunity to spout off if nobody is downloading their products. Proprietary company CEOs can spout off as long as they can find a VC to foot the bill.
The open source world is still a very young industry. Mainstream technology companies now have lobbyists and stadiums named after them and all the other trappings of established businesses. No doubt the day will come when even open source CEO dinners become dull and lifeless affairs, but I sincerely hope those days are a long ways off.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Tragedy of the Corporate Wiki

If you want to see the possibilities and limits of Web 2.0 as they apply to the enterprise, there is no better place to look than a Wiki. In part because they are so easy to get started, they positively invite a fatal lack of planning.

Wikis start out wonderful but rapidly morph from a grand experiment in bottoms-up community to a wasteland of out-of-date marketing collateral. As such, they become exhibit "A" that the self-service concept only goes so far in IT.

Without up front planning, clear ownership and constant maintenance, the primary service offered by self-service IT is the ability to shoot yourself in the foot. David Precipio recently had a good post about the future of Wikis that got me thinking about ActiveGrid's own less than stellar corporate Wiki.

Six months ago, we launched a bold new corporate wiki that rapidly became an object lesson in why wikis get a bad rap. Here are some of the lessons learned from our own experiment in wiki-style self service:
  1. Designate a wiki "csar": just like our communal refrigerator, every so often, someone has to come in with a big garbage bag and clear out all the stinky stuff.
  2. Define required functionality: it is amazing what a wiki won't do out of the box. Ours doesn't keep people logged in on their computers, has bizarre navigation and an almost unusable search functionality. Some critical functionality for us is the ability to publish MS Office documents (particularly tables) directly to the wiki.
  3. Pay for an expert who can set it up right: we are using Twiki, which needs someone with perl expertise to administer it and its many plug-ins.
  4. Create a clear update process: in addition to an overall csar, there should be a clear owner for each section and a process for updating document on a regular basis.
Web 2.0 tools like wikis are just tools. Their value depends in great part on how they are applied. For Web 2.0 tools to be successful in the enterprise, IT will need to provide tested components, usable tools and a clear process that enables user self-service to provide a net benefit to the enterprise.

Adam Carson of Morgan Stanley made a similar point recently at the Office 2.0 conference (podcast here), when he pointed out that Morgan Stanley's use of wikis worked because of, not inspite of, heavy involvement from IT.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Ajax Needs Eclipse Like A Hole in the Head

Infoworld recently announced a new Ajax tool for Eclipse, called , RAP. While this is a logical step forward for the Eclipse community, it is an evolutionary dead-end from a Web 2.0 viewpoint.

The goal of enterprise Web 2.0 is to democratize the development of web applications by lowering the learning curve. Enhancing Eclipse does nothing to solve the fundamental skills gap between the Java "high priests" and the traditional application developers who are skilled in visual tools like Access and PowerBuilder.

Eclipse is the heavyweight champion of the heads-down Java server programming world. Ajax is the lightweight champion of the rich internet client world. These are clearly different tasks, so presumably would benefit from using different tools. Other than masochism, why would someone decide to saw logs with a hammer?

Given the cost and difficulty of hiring Java developers, putting them into the UI design role is a waste of resources. In addition, the skills that make a developer good at server programming do not necessarily translate into web page layout skills.

At ActiveGrid, our goal is to enable application developers to assemble web applications visually without needing deep technical skills in Java, Javascript, css, etc. This vision requires two components:
  1. Studio for lightweight page assembly: Web 2.0 application developers need a visual and lightweight tool for assembling web pages - they need a DreamWeaver for Ajax.

  2. Java server framework for seamless services integration: the web pages created by a Web 2.0 application developer should integrate seamlessly with a standard Java back end using something Json/Spring/Hibernate server.
While Ajax for Eclipse represents an incremental step forward, it is not at all clear that this is the best way to build Ajax clients. We are betting that the right tools for building Web 2.0 applications will unlock a wave of developer productivity within the enterprise equivalent to what simple blogging tools have done for web publishing.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

SAP decides Chuck Phillips was right, buys Business Objects

There have been two high-drama tech strategy faceoffs in recent times: HP's contested acquisition of Compaq and SAP's decision to grow organically versus Oracle's acquisitive route. Just for the record, I called both of these wrong, believing that HP should stick to it's knitting and that Oracle was buying itself more trouble than growth.

In both cases, it turned out that treating the tech world as a maturing market ripe for consolidation was the right approach. HP has profited well by its Compaq acquisition, while Oracle has outpaced SAP thanks to its string of acquisitions.

As a board member of Reportive, I presented to SAP at the beginning of the year and were told that SAP had more than six internal business intelligence reporting products already. Clearly SAP is not lacking for BI technology. Instead, they are following Oracle's lead by acquiring companies with related technologies they can cross sell.

The challenge is that Oracle has Chuck Phillips, a former Morgan Stanley tech analyst superstar (fun fact: his phone number at Morgan was 1-800-MR CHUCK). Chuck has had the enterprise software acquisition market mostly to himself for the last four years and has made the most of it by cherry-picking his acquisitions, including Hyperion and Siebel Analytics in the BI space.

Oracle has also had four years to learn the difficult art of post-merger integration. Any bets on how well the integration between a stodgy German company and an arrogant French company will go?

Earlier this year, SAP politics drove away their internal technology wizard, Shai Aggassi. This effectively eliminated any possibility that their grow from within strategy would work.

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but in this case, it is flattery that is likely to cost SAP dearly to the benefit of Oracle.

ps. there are several good ZDNet articls on this from Josh Greenbaum, Dennis Howlett and Dan Farber

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Take a pass on proprietary platform SaaS

Recently there have been a slew of announcements in a category that could be called Platform as a Service. SalesForce launched their new platform last week, and companies like Coghead and Teqlo have entries in this arena as well.

The details differ, but each Platform as a Service vendor provides roughly the following:
  • Web based development tools: graphical environment for building business productivity apps and deploying them immediately to an on-demand server.

  • Proprietary server technology: the applications and data are locked into a unique SaaS environment. Goodbye any hope of managing IT standards consistently!
Haven't we seen this movie before and doesn't in end in tears? For example, how many people still think SAP's ABAP is a good idea? In return for short-term pleasure (easy to build apps, don't have to worry about deployment), I let myself in for a long-term world of pain (including security, data quality and integration challenges).

Why would any enterprise want another company to have semi-exclusive control of their business logic and data?

To be sure, the SalesForce platform may well be an excellent way to extend existing SalesForce applications, as ZDnet points out here. It does not make sense, however as a stand-alone platform, particularly in comparison to more accepted platforms like J2EE and .NET.

At ActiveGrid, we believe that the whole distinction between on-site and on-demand deployment is an artifact of poor tool design. The next generation of web development tools will make it transparent whether you are deploying to your desktop, to the data center or to a SaaS hosting environment like Amazon's Electric Compute Cloud. Programmable web has a nice summary of EC2 applications here.

The next generation of virtualization will occur when enterprise developers can make on-the-fly decisions about whether to host applications on-site or on-demand. Put succinctly, SaaS manageability goodness is not enough to overcome proprietary badness.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Social media hangover - why can't we all just be friends?

Just like in the 60's (but I suspect we had less fun this time around), social media excess has inevitably led to social media disillusionment.

As all technical wonders, it started with the delight of seeing how many people want to be your friend, some of whom you actually know. There was also the added titillation of all those MySpace friend requests from users with names like Lola, Estelle and Nichole.

Of course it all had to end in tears, as we found that our LinkedIn friends were only using us to get a new job, that our Facebook friends were only using us prove that they were still more popular than us and that our MySpace friends charged for their services.

Or in kindergarten terms, we have gone from wandering all over the playground asking everyone else, "will you be my friend" to the pre-emptive exclusion of sitting in the corner and declaring "you're not my friend" to all comers.

The behavior that constitutes friendship varies dramatically based on context. My favorite example was when my sister was in 2nd grade and arrived home announcing that she had a new boyfriend. When I asked her how she knew, she replied "he's my boyfriend because he threw a pear at me on the way home."

Every context has different rules for being "friends" - much of the fun of social media is that we are getting to live through a global learning process around the rules that apply to friendship in a variety of new communication environments. As Rob La Gesse points out here,

This goes back to "context" - something these social network sites are not managing very well. I should be able to check my levels of interest in various aspects of soccer (player, coach, parent, investor, etc) and communications and friend requests should take this information into account when handling requests.

ps Thanks to Shel Israel for kicking off this train of thought with a question he posted on Facebook here.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

We liked TurboAjax so much…we bought the company

Over the next few months, almost everything about the company-currently-know-as-ActiveGrid will undergo dramatic transformation. We are announcing the first step in this transformation on Monday with our acquisition of a top Dojo tool provider, TurboAjax.

TurboAjax brings an incredibly cool Dojo widget builder and equally talented developers into ActiveGrid. We first saw their products on July 26 and had a signed Letter of Intent exactly one week later - probably a land speed record for software acquisitions!

This acquisition also lands us at the center of the Dojo community of AJAX developers. Why Dojo? Well, we are targeting the enterprise, where internationalization and security are critical. We believe Dojo is creating the best UI toolkit for enterprise developers.

Earlier this week I waxed eloquent on the flaws in proprietary non-AJAX solutions like Silverlight, Flex and JavaFX. However it is also fair to point out that there are many challenges within the open source AJAX community as well, including:
  • Lack of commercial support: without the availability of commercial support, AJAX will not achieve enterprise adoption. With this acquisition, ActiveGrid will now stand behind both the TurboAjax products and the Dojo Toolkit.

  • Missing features: common complaints around the Dojo toolkit include lack of complete documentation and robust samples. If AJAX toolkits are to be adopted, they need the same polish as proprietary solutions like Flex.

  • Inconsistent standards: as the saying goes, the nice thing about AJAX standards is that there are so many to choose from. There is an alphabet soup of Javascript libraries out there, including JQuery, Prototype, Rico, Scriptaculous, Ext and YUI. Each of these takes a very different approach to solving the same problem.

  • Security: don't even get me started on the security challenges in an environment full of widgets, gadgets and 3rd party web services. Suffice it to say that when this rock gets turned over, lots of ugly stuff creepy-crawly things will slither out.
The AJAX world needs a RedHat to create a common distribution and provide commercial support and training behind an enterprise-ready toolkit. With our TurboAjax acquisition, ActiveGrid is taking an important first step down this path. Stay tuned for our next move!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Really Idiotic Approaches to RIA: Flex, Silverlight and JavaFX

I just waded through a good article in DevX by Alexey Gavrilov on building Rich Internet Applications with Adobe Flex, Microsoft Silverlight and Sun JavaFX. The article worked step-by-step through how to build simple web applications with each of these products.

I had expected that there was some connection between Web 2.0, open source and the leaders in RIA. Instead, I found a set of time-warp technologies, each embodying its own uniquely idiotic approach. For the sake of brevity, I will here summarize the crowning idiocy of each approach:
  • The fat-client approach. Microsoft has determined that the only problem with browser-based apps is that it doesn’t run fat client apps. Silverlight fixes that bug.

  • The supermodel approach. Adobe was so entranced with the beauty of Flex’s audio-video capabilities that they forget to add little things like the ability to work with strings or dates.

  • The once more with feeling approach. Sun decided to take another stab at making good on their most famous lie about Java, “write once, run anywhere.” Unfortunately for them, the Javascript Genie is out of the bottle.
None of these approaches supports Javascript as the primary scripting language. Don’t tell Adobe, Microsoft or Sun that Javascript is hot and that those crazy open source people are starting to assemble lightweight applications to run in web browsers.

Having said all this, the open source AJAX community has plenty of work to do in cleaning up its own house. The good news is that if this is what we’re fighting against, we have only ourselves to blame if the evil scientists win!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Google - the platform cometh

Nicholas Carr covered the recent Google/Capgemini partnership announcement here. We are seeing an "Innovator's Dilemma" market appear before our eyes - cheap but underpowered Google apps against expensive, full-featured Microsoft apps. While the feature bigots laugh, Google apps will creep into the corporate IT fabric around the edges.

It will be interesting to see how the SIs start to knit Google apps into the corporate IT environment. There will be an opportunity to create the equivalent of's App Exchange around Google's apps/gadgets/storage. By driving an on-demand platform into Microsoft's turf, Google accomplishes two goals:
  1. Keep Microsoft off balance so they can't put all their efforts into taking on Google in Search
  2. Open up a "protected" market where Microsoft can't follow without undermining its own desktop business
Google recently announced pub/sub gadgets, which makes their potential role as an enterprise platform provider even more interesting.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Trick question: what is the most valuable database in the world?

I sit on the board of Kapow, a company that allows you to turn anything on the web into a data source.

As a thought experiment, I asked their executive team to tell me the most valuable database on the planet?

Here are some potential winners:
  • D&B - all the financial data you could hope for - nope
  • IMS - all the medical data you could uncover - nope

And the answer is...Google (is it my imagination or is the answer to almost every question these days Google?) The point is that the really valuable information is increasingly moving to the web. That means that the next generation of data adapters will treat the web as a gigantic database (albeit one that requires clever robots from Kapow to take full advantage of).

For example, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (say that 3 time fast) wanted to put together the definitive global warming portal, they found that the best information was all on the web, and turned to Kapow to get that information into a single portal.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

5 Show-Stoppers That Cause Enterprise 2.0 Apps to Fail

I had a great conversation today with one of my blog-heros, Jeff Nolan. Jeff recently finished a stint as the CEO of Teqlo, a pioneer in hosted tools for building Enterprise 2.0 applications. Others in this space include Coghead and Bungee Labs.

The nirvana we are all shooting for is a world where developers can assemble useful business applications with minimal coding or scripting. The idea is to take simplify certain tasks that are hard to do with code (e.g., visual assembly of page layouts, hooking controls to services) without making it harder than normal to do the things that will always have to be done with some sort of logic. The reality to date has fallen short of this nirvana.

We identified 5 reasons that Enterprise 2.0 apps today often fail to live up to the hype:

1. “Slowest man sets the pace.” Chaining together service calls to build applications creates bottlenecks where the slowest service call tanks the performance of the whole application.

2. Look but don’t touch widgets. Although this is changing (see here for the latest on Google’s pub/sub widgets), the vast majority of widgets can’t exchange data. This allows for an infinite variety of cute clock and horoscope widgets, but a paucity of useful business functionality in widget form.

3. Web service alphabet soup. There are a number of web service standards and even within a standard there are few rules for how the standard should be applied. This means that creating widgets to integrate web services is unexpectedly time consuming.

4. Still too darn hard. The world of widgets and building AJAX apps is still far too complicated for the typical end user developer. Current state of the art tools still require a knowledge of IDEs, standards and languages far beyond the grasp of casual developers.

5. Service throttling. At ActiveGrid, we have found that a number of web services like Google Maps are easy to mash-up for demo apps but much, much harder to use for doing real work. Given that Google has to pay for all the servers, it is easy to see why they would want to encourage people to use their web services in non-intensive ways.

Jeff believes a big market lies in creating “people, place, thing” applications like project management and time tracking. I would add that the killer app is tying Internet data presentation and collection with email workflow – sort of an updated Lotus Notes.

The market and the tools are evolving quickly, so in six months the landscape will look fundamentally different. For now, however, the vision of idiot-proof assembly of Enterprise 2.0 apps using rich business widgets has yet to be fully realized.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Larkware - ActiveGrid is the missing link from Access to Web 2.0

Mike Gunderloy of Larkware blogged about our MS Access to MySQL migration here. Mike is well known in the Microsoft community, although he has another blog, A Fresh Cup, that he bills as "notes from a recovering Microsoft addict," where he waxes eloquent on Ajax applications, Ruby on Rails and all things Enterprise 2.0.

The interesting point is that although there is a great deal of enthusiasm around Web 2.0 tools like Ruby on Rails, there are no Web 2.0 equivalents of the trusty drag-n-drop client/server tools like MS Access and PowerBuilder.

Face it, if you have to learn about Rails concepts like meta-programming and scafollding just to build a Web 2.0 app, your average VB developer is just going to continue taking a pass on this whole web thing and hope that it blows over.

Until there are Web 2.0 tools that provide a natural evolution from client/server development to web development, an entire generation of programmers will continue to hang fire. At a minimum, this will require drag and drop web development tools that don't require an entire bookshelf of manuals to get started building useful apps.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The portal to nowhere

David Precopio recently blogged here about Portals, wikis and other transitory technical phenomena. In 2000, portals represented a vision for how a new, user-driven web was going to develop - one which paradoxically required lots of new proprietary software and teams of developers.

Shortly after 2000, application server vendors looking for a way to boost sagging license revenues (what do you mean we can't charge a premium for a commodity J2EE product?!) glommed onto portals as a handy revenue extender/floor wax. They immediately shifted into high gear, selling the whitening and brightening qualities of their "collaborative" web products.

Into the middle of all this crept the real collaborative web products. Using social media as their proving ground, they pioneered user generated content, interactive UIs (remember those nice client/server UIs - they're back as AJAX) and web services (remember those nice objects - they're back as services).

We met a company recently that referred to their 20 person portal project as "our latest boat anchor." Portals are just the latest example that technology vendors often have the right idea about what the future needs but too often try to implement the tools of the future from the worn out components of their past successes.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Migrating MS Access Applications to MySQL and Web 2.0

The MySQL developer community just published an article I wrote on migrating MS Access applications to MySQL.

The Enterprise Web 2.0 revolution is happening at the edges of the organization (democracy always enters by the side door). As proof of this, a recent MySQL user survey showed that 20% of MySQL users are using MySQL to port MS Access applications (in fact, this is the largest single segment of MySQL users!)

This article came out of a Birds of a Feather session at the MySQL User Conference. It summarizes best practices, tricks and tips for turning “fat client” MS Access apps into open-source, Web 2.0 apps using MySQL and ActiveGrid studio. Stay tuned for a joint ActiveGrid/MySQL webinar in early October, to be followed by a seminar tool and a sitcom spinoff on YouTube.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Democratization of development

Shel Israel has a good post in which he interviews Chris Shipley of Demo fame on the significance of social media and Web 2.0. She says:

I do think that the rapid and broad dissipation of power/influence/control
that is at the core of social media (Web 2.0?) is as fundamental a shift as from
mainframe to mini and mini to PC. When power moves from central
control out to the edges, things change dramatically and forever. This
Genie isn't going back into the bottle. Full article here

This puts a pretty profound spin on the effect these technologies can have on how applications are developed in the enterprise. If Enterprise Web 2.0 tools allow more business-focused developers to be more effective in building business apps, IT can start to have a much more decisive effect on the business.

I would add to Chris Shipley's comment two additional predictions about how collaboration and Web 2.0 will drive business change:

  1. Collaboration technologies will improve the developer/user dialogue to produce a better understanding of user requirements
  2. Lightweight prototyping tools will enable more iterative development to product products that better meet business needs.

ps I got a chuckle out of this Web 2.0 love letter - who would have thought that all these wacky company names could be turned to such good use!?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Of babies, bathwater and enterprise web 2.0

Through my friend Peter Christy, I was recently introduced to Kent Beck, the godfather of Extreme Programming. In the ensuing email conversation, he gave a pithy example of why his thinking has been so influential:

It seems to me like the new generation of UI technologies creates the
opportunity for artfully simplifying tools. The general technology is incredibly
powerful and flexible, but the cost and complexity of using it is high. Along
comes someone with a version of the technology that can do 20 or 40 or 60% of
what the original can do, but that opens the door to many more people using it.
The trick is always discarding the right 40 or 60 or 80%.

Kent puts his finger on the challenge for the next generation of enterprise tools – how to democratize the development of web applications. The challenge will be draining out the bathwater (development complexity) without also dumping the baby (expressive power).

Extreme Programming 2.0 Anyone?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

RAD without tears - how enterprise web 2.0 fulfills the promise

Like many other technology fashions, the Rapid Application Development (RAD) process made many extravagent claims which crumbled under the demands of real-world development. The goal of RAD is to create a series of prototypes which incrementally close in on the ideal customer

The problem is not so much the RAD (or Agile, or Extreme) process itself, but the limitations of the tools used to implement them. There has always been a moment of truth in RAD tools when the team moved from prototyping to "real" development.

If the prototyping is done with a lightweight tool like Visio, the moment you move to a heavyweight tool like J2EE, you lose your agility to respond to user feedback. The ideal solution would be a tool that can create deployable prototypes.

Why do Enterprise Web 2.0 tools have the potential to support RAD where other worthy technologies have failed? There are several reasons:
  1. Drag-n-drop web app creation: the ability to create a rich interface quickly makes the prototyping part of RAD much easier;
  2. Assembly-based development: the ability to assemble lightweight applications that invoke more heavyweight web services keeps the development team nimble;
  3. Web-based delivery: users are much more likely to provide feedback if it is easy for them to access and try out prototypes. Web-based delivery ensures better communication between developers and users, particularly for a distributed team.
  4. Standards-based deployment: many traditional RAD tools like PowerBuilder and MS Access produce applications which don't meet corporate security and managability standards. Web 2.0 tools fit more naturally with IT requirements.
Along the same lines, I delicious-ed (to Haig-ize a verb) across an interesting link by Siorc proclaiming that Web 2.0 is the new RAD. I think his theme is right, but the more precise statement would be that enterprise Web 2.0 tools have the potential to fulfill many of the promises made by RAD.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

School 2.0 - How Web 2.0 is Changing Enterprise School Applications

My friend Lee Wilson just posted an entry on the impact of Web 2.0 technology on school software that you can read here. He spent some time talking to ActiveGrid partner Eljakim about their Carel Student Attendance System that we announced here.

He believes that Web 2.0 will give parents more control over their children's education and accelerate the trend towards statewide deployment of educational software. What he believes are needed are effective and easy-to-use tools for building Web 2.0 apps. Sounds like a job for Activegrid!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Dutch Schools Use Web 2.0 to Improve Graduation Rates for 200,000 Students

One clear indicator of the state of the Enterprise Web 2.0 market is the dearth of real case studies. ActiveGrid's partner, Eljakim IT just increased the number of meaty Enterprise 2.0 success stories by 1.

Social Computing Magazine just picked up a case study on an ActiveGrid customer who used ActiveGrid to build Web 2.0 attendance system. To read the Social computing article, click here or if you want to Digg this, click here

The system is tracking 200,000 students and is used by 500 school administrators and social workers. The application itself contains over 300 web pages. The full case study is here.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

PowerBuilder for Web 2.0

Judith Hurwitz recently wrote a very interesting article comparing the Web 2.0 tools world today with the early days of client/server GUI builders. Her article is located here. Among other clever things, she says:
Just as PowerBuilder provided a way for the masses to create a graphical first
generation environment, so this next generation of development tools will bring
Web 2.0 to a broad audience.

This summarizes exactly the market opportunity we are seeing at ActiveGrid. The reality is that most corporations use internet for external, customer-facing apps but deploy old-fashioned client/server employee-facing apps behind the firewall. Observations about the cobbler’s children having the worst shoes definitely apply!

Our goal is to bring the web revolution to client/server developers who have been left behind by complex code frameworks like J2EE, .NET, even Rails. Mitchell Kertzman, who is on our board, is helping us undo the client/server revolution he started at PowerSoft. Our goal is to drive the pendulum from distributed, fat-client systems back to centralized, thin-client systems.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Ten Ways to Kick-Start a User Community – how ActiveGrid boosted postings by 10 times in five months

Every software vendor dreams of having a vibrant user community to provide input, buzz and maybe even someday help make money! When I joined ActiveGrid six months ago, the user community on SourceForge was dead, with one to two posting per day. Now the community has over 15 posts a day, a more than ten-fold increase in less than six months.

This describes the steps we took to go from zero to somebody in the enterprise tools forum world. ActiveGrid is a visual tool for building web apps, sort of an MS Access for the Web. Our success as a tool is closely tied to the strength of our community.

1. Crown a community czar

Taking care of the community had been an ad hoc activity at ActiveGrid. As usual, whenever something is everybody’s job, it ends up at the end of everybody’s todo list.

The most important step we took to kick-start our community was to assign a full-time employee to manage the health and well-being of the community. The skills required for success include good technical and writing abilities combined with a genuine interest in open source communities.

2. Put all your eggs in one basket and watch that basket!

For historical reasons, ActiveGrid had several different forums. There was even an abandoned community started by an ActiveGrid fan. It was thriving, but only because spammers had loaded all the forums with postings that were off topic to say the least. It took over a month to get all the forum traffic funneled into just one community board.

3. Use best of breed forum tools

We found that the ActiveGrid SourceForge forums were hard to navigate and didn’t allow attachments. Our community czar moved the community to Drupal and rehosted it at The new Drupal site helped make it easier to post content, helping to drive a flood of new posts. In addition, the Drupal forum software handles attachments and graphics, making it much more valuable for sharing information.

4. Connect with your base

The first thing our community czar did was to reach out to the people who were actively posting (even though many of their postings had to do with how un-loved they were feeling). He contacted them directly through email and built personal relationships with what we called the “Fab 4” – the top 4 posters who became the foundation for the rebirth of our community. One important lesson is that a small core of active posters is the soul of a healthy community.

5. Turn off the spin

At the risk of sounding cluetrain manifesto-ish, we made an early decision to err on the side of transparency in communicating with our community. We admitted that we had been lax in our support of the community and asked for their help. We also kept the community strictly separate from the commercial side of the house. Using community to flog commercial ideas will go nowhere. It’s like the joke about why you shouldn’t teach a pig to whistle – it doesn’t work and it annoys the pig.

6. Coddle early adopters

In a new community, one active poster is worth 1,000 lurkers. Given this, anything you can do to help incubate people with the gift of gab is worthwhile. We gave away ipods, bought lunches, but most importantly built personal relationships with our community champions.

7. Foster healthy competition

Each posting at earns the poster points, that aren’t redeemable in any way except in our rankings. Anyone in the community who wants to be seen by their peers as an ActiveGrid expert has to work pretty hard just to stay at the top of the rankings.

8. Find work for your users

Many of the posters in the ActiveGrid community are consultants. Every chance we get, we put our corporate customers in touch with community experts. This is classic win-win – our customers get their jobs done and our community champions have even more reasons to be enthusiastic about our products.

9. Take your lumps

Not all postings are positive. Not all community members are polite. Having a community manager actively working to address issues as they arise has proven the most effective way of keeping the overall tone of the community constructive.

10. Explore the boundaries

We are now at the fun stage in working with the community, where we are exploring the boundaries of what you can do with a passionate and committed group of people, all of whom are focused on helping you deliver a great product to market.

For example, the community has provided invaluable beta testing on our last three releases. Top community members have also had one-on-one meetings with our engineering team to help us engineer our next generation product. On the business side, we have asked the community for help in devising our pricing and licensing.

We have not yet fully tapped the potential of the community, but have absolutely turned the community into a powerful driver of momentum. It has been extraordinary how quickly the gains in the community have been reflected by increased business activity and enthusiasm among our commercial customers. Success is infectious!

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Using Service Providers - outsource, don't abandon

I recently spoke at a Startup-U session on using service providers.

No entrepreneur has experience in all the areas needed to run a successful business. To get any business off the ground, you will need to delegate many tasks to service providers.

The general rule of thumb is that you should never outsource your source of competitive advantage. For this reason, most tech companies like to keep R&D in house.

However, it is also important not to lose sight of important business metrics by farming them out. In short, you can outsource tasks, but you can’t abandon them

In particular, while it is very attractive to outsource away all your finance and legal headaches, in reality, it is important to remain engaged. For example, no lawyer can tell you the right way to divvy up your equity.

Outsourcing a task doesn’t mean you don’t have to worry about it any more. Make sure someone is monitoring the tasks that you have outsourced to a service provider. If you don’t have experience with finance or legal tasks, find a board member or advisor who knows what they are doing and can help monitor your service provider.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Getting dressed in the dark

What with the short winter days and getting up early to go swimming, I have been getting dressed in the dark frequently. So there I am, with minimal lights so I don’t wake anyone, trying to figure out whether my pants will match my shirt when everything looks grey. Mostly I go by texture and after fumbling for awhile just make my best guess.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have started as CEO of ActiveGrid. Again, I find myself with partial information, trying to make important decisions without too much time. I have met 1 on 1 with each employee, trying to understand everyone’s skills, how they look at their job and what they think could be done to make the team more effective.

With limited information and limited time, I am trying to make decisions about how to get everything working well together. The more I see of management, the more I believe that it is often important to trust your gut and move forward even if you don’t have the full picture.

Thus it was a bit disconcerting to get to work last Wednesday and discover that I had picked out navy blue pants to go with my brown shirt.