Slaves to the web find a saviour

The pace of change on the internet has left business struggling to keep up. Malcolm Wheatley looks at a possible solution
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TAGGED on to everything from television advertisements to corporate stationery and vehicles, the addresses of companies' internet web sites are fast becoming as ubiquitous as their logos. But businesses appear to have been caught flatfooted by the speed at which the perceived quality of a company's web site is seen as indicative of its core strengths - such as its customer responsiveness, capacity for innovation and willingness to embrace new technologies.

Many large companies "have missed the point" of the internet, concludes a survey published on 31 January by Fletcher Research and sponsored by the management consultancy McKinsey. Web sites operated by the utility sector showed a "collective lack of imagination", and many sites simply displayed static information. Only 35 per cent of companies tried to generate revenue from their sites - mostly by accepting advertisements from other companies. Just 16 per cent of sites attempted any form of electronic commerce. Bizarrely, many companies' sites failed to provide even basic product information.

Nevertheless, the report says, "the next 12 months will see a dramatic improvement in the range and quality of UK web sites," such is the fear of being left behind in the race to become wired - not to mention the risk of being "named and shamed" as the owner of a substandard web site. This was the unfortunate fate to befall the John Lewis Partnership, whose site is strongly criticised in the report.

But despite the obvious marketing and commercial advantages of possessing a slick and glitzy web site, many companies have been put off by the big and not-so-glitzy bills that follow. Web site designers aren't cheap, and neither are the less-skilled individuals who program the computer codes that lie behind each web page. Privately, some of America's biggest corporations are ruing the day that their web sites became a corporate virility symbol - thus prompting them into a never-ending cycle of updates, extensions and refurbishment.Yet these seem inevitable: no one will return to a site that is much the same as it was on their previous visit, and fails to answer their questions.

But web pages, first conceived by the scientist Tim Berners-Lee at Geneva's CERN nuclear laboratory in the early 1990s, were never intended to take off in the corporate world to the extent that they have. And to academics, used to working with computers, the task of coding pages that would change relatively infrequently would not seem particularly arduous. Hence the excitement surrounding a company that would appear to have found at least a partial solution to the problem of creating web pages more productively - and, more to the point, linking them to other pages so that users can jump from page to page.

Early last year a Californian company called NetObjects launched what has been described as "one of 1997's coolest software releases": a "drag- and-drop" site building tool called Fusion that rapidly carved a sizeable niche for itself among the "webmasters". By cannily marketing the product directly to the very best webmasters rather than to their superiors, who would normally make software purchasing decisions -"the ubers", as NetObjects' marketing director Mark Patton puts it - the company has achieved a remarkable market penetration very quickly.

Competitors such as Microsoft, points out Mr Patton, have focused their energies on making the creation of individual pages more productive, rather than on speeding the process of building and maintaining whole sites. NetObjects has thus become one of America's hottest start-ups in recent years, and its 33-year-old chief executive officer, Samir Arora, a former Apple Computer Corporation executive, is now regarded in Silicon Valley as someone to watch.

Nevertheless, funded almost entirely by debt and venture capital equity, the company has already experienced one or two rocky moments in its short history, and Mr Arora found IBM's offer last year to acquire a controlling interest in the company too hard to resist. Apparently, NetObjects' technology fits in well with IBM's plans for Lotus, which it acquired in 1996, and the company has vowed to take a "hands-off" approach to NetObjects' management.

So far, the signs are that it is keeping its promise. Noting that most buyers took several copies of Fusion, the company established that its customers were using a product that had been designed for solo work to undertake a task that was being handled by teams of people. Why not meet the market half way with a workflow-enabled product - rather like Lotus Notes - that allowed people to work on their part of a web site project on a collaborative basis?

That hunch has now become reality with the launch of a product called TeamFusion, which operates through a set of in-built "permissions" that allow people to work together on building and maintaining a web site from wherever they work in the organisation.

For example, an employee from marketing might handle the text on certain pages, someone else from product design might be responsible for the text on other pages, while another employee would be responsible for maintaining prices, and customer response material would be handled by customer service personnel - and all, if required, from their normal place of work on a part-time basis.

Reportedly, early users and beta-testers have already experienced significant productivity gains, and the software is scheduled for launch in Europe - good news, surely, for "named and shamed" organisations casting around for a way of boosting their web sites without incurring crippling costs.

It is good news, too, for the company's management, who are looking forward to becoming richer when the share of the company not owned by IBM is floated on the US stock exchange.