Trends to watch for in the software apps world

If you saw Michael Cimino's classic movie The Deerhunter, you will remember this pivotal scene: Up in the fresh mountain air, Michael (Robert De Niro) holds a round from his hunting rifle and says to his bemused buddies, "This...this is this." One of the messages Michael is communicating is that now is the time to see things as they are and to focus on what's really going on. Now is the time to focus on what's going on in the software applications world, and what's going on involves some interesting convergences.

TPMs and ORBs
Take transaction processing monitors (TPMs) and Object Request Brokers (ORBs) for example. Traditionally, a TPM acts as a front-end preprocessor to large mainframe and UNIX servers to efficiently manage the high volume of transactions that OnLine Transaction Processing (OLTP) systems generate and to ensure the end-to-end integrity of those transactions in their respective business processes. Microsoft's Transaction Server (code-named Viper) will play this role on the Windows NT platform. ORBs and the component-based applications they service are still in their infancy. ORBs manage the communications among discrete software objects distributed across a network. TPMs and ORBs are just specialized components of workflow management: One manages transaction flows between clients and servers or servers and servers, and the other manages message flow among system and business objects.

You can expect to see TPM, ORB, and workflow applications converge as workflow becomes the dominant factor in the way these tools are positioned in the marketplace. This convergence will make the efforts of independent workflow bodies such as the Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC) more important than ever as they define workflow interoperability standards for future business applications.

Web Content and Document Management Tools
Another anticipated convergence is the joining of Web content management tools such as Microsoft's FrontPage with document management tools such as Mezzanine from Saros. Several new Web content management tools have emerged that do little more than basic document management with a Web spin.

Tools such as FrontPage let you create, edit, and administer documents and images and visually map their organization, which is exactly the foundation of a document management system. The Web site has replaced the traditional document management system filing-cabinet paradigm. If you add scanning capabilities, sophisticated document security, and the ability to track document versions, you have a Web-enabled document management system. Add browser-based document viewing and editing to document management, and you have a Web content management system.

Why the document management vendors let this paradigm shift happen is a mystery. They easily could have had this Web content management market to themselves. Instead, companies such as Microsoft and Adobe are playing on these vendors' turf and demonstrating the importance of tracking convergences to ward off competition from unexpected quarters.

Report Writers, Data Mining, and Notification Systems
Another group of applications you can expect to see converge includes report writers, data mining applications, and notification systems. This convergence will change the way you manage reporting, particularly in complex businesses. Instead of the paper-based, visual reporting focus of today's report writers, future reporting will involve an electronic, invisible engine. Running a report will simply be the means to provide an electronic dataset that data mining software can interrogate, apply business rules of varying complexity to, and deliver through a notification system. The business rules that the report writer applies can be simple if...then...else constructs and value threshold comparisons, or they can use fuzzy logic or neural network artificial intelligence to provide complex data analysis.

The reporting engine will be largely invisible to users. The data mining tool will make routine decisions so that the user doesn't have to. And the notification system will manage data delivery in various formats such as email, fax, pager, HTML, or database tables. Accounting vendors such as Computron Software are already leading the way in delivering notification-based reporting. Strangely enough, the report writing vendors seem to be ignoring this convergence.

GUIs, Web Browsers, and the Electronic Inbox
GUIs, Web browsers, and the electronic inbox are finally starting to converge. I'm certain that the inbox interface of products such as Microsoft Exchange will become the dominant information console for managing all kinds of business applications when the convergences I've described are commercial realities. Current document- and application-centric GUIs such as Windows 95 and Apple's MacOS are built for consumers: Presumably, these consumers respond to messages such as, "Where Do You Want to Go Today?" Task-oriented business users know where they want to go today, and they want to get there as fast as possible without the redundant Start buttons. Today's GUIs aren't designed for business use.

Some people expect the Internet browser will become the UI of the future. This outlook seems shortsighted. Internet browsers are file viewers for navigating linked documents, and we're stretching these browsers to their limits by incorporating Java- and ActiveX-based applet objects. Using a browser as it was meant to be used--as a tool for viewing and navigating linked documents--is better than bending it into something that the universal inbox does better.

I say let users use the inbox to pull down applet objects from the Internet or initiate and participate in workflows using TPM- and ORB-enabled workflow management software. We need the inbox to receive and send messages and act on notifications and a browser to view and navigate linked documents and images. With a persistent Internet connection, an inbox can become a heterogenous application manager, realtime information console, and window on the world. The universal inbox stands a chance of making Bill Gates's vision of information at your fingertips real for business users. If you've spotted other convergences and you want a chance to be Robert De Niro and say, "This...this is this," email me at stewart@winntmag.com.