According to Crider, developers can "componentize" these pieces of functionality, reaggregate them, and create new business processes -- although the resulting applications must run on the NetWeaver platform. But there's nothing to stop portal servers on other platforms from drawing on apps built on SAP business logic. Nothing, that is, except incremental cost. Although the licensing details are still hazy, Gartner's Phifer notes that enterprise application vendors now view portals as a grand opportunity to grow revenue by exporting the functionality of their apps to more users.
And how does the world's largest software company fit into the portal picture? While most agree that the latest version of Microsoft's SharePoint Portal Server is a good product, the company is clearly ambivalent about enterprise portals. And no wonder, Phifer says. "If the Webtop became a reality, Microsoft has the most to lose because right now Microsoft owns the eyeballs of corporate Earth," he says. "And if I suddenly switch over to a Web browser with a portal being displayed, my eyeballs are focusing on the portal and not on the Microsoft desktop."
Portal to the Future
As a countermeasure, predicts Phifer, Microsoft will eventually launch a desktop portal application that will integrate enterprise portal functionality into Windows. Meanwhile, other portal servers continue to bulk up on features, particularly search, content management, identity management, and collaboration (including instant messaging). The latest version of WebSphere Portal Server even bundles browser versions of Lotus applications, including Notes, a text editor, and a spreadsheet.
Third parties are also enriching the portal environment. IBM and Plumtree have been particularly effective in cultivating third-party portlet development, so that instead of building portlets, IT can license them for specific applications at minimal cost. Until recently, portlets were specific to the platform for which they were written. But thanks to new interoperability standards, that situation is changing. Standards will accelerate the development of third-party portlets, which already address a broad swath of vertical applications.
IBM's Bowden likes to say that this is the era of "leveraging" the portal. In other words, when one department deploys a portal, others follow. "All of the sudden your sales team wants one, your partner network wants one, your services team wants one, your financial officer want to use it," he says. And when the infrastructure for one departmental portal is in place, adding others requires only incremental effort. IBM is accelerating adoption by creating prebuilt portals for vertical applications --such as a recent collaboration with KPMG that resulted in a portal devoted to Sarbanes-Oxley reporting. In 2004, Bowden says he plans to roll out 60 new vertical portals.
We're still a long way from the late '90s dream of an overarching enterprise portal, where everyone logs on once over their first cup of coffee and immediately gets a perfectly tailored Webtop with all the applications and data necessary for work. Instead, IT is discovering that the integration and development frameworks provided by portals offer practical, even elegant, solutions to common business problems.