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Test Your Web App on Teens
Tuesday, June 29, 1999

IBM exec urges feedback from young and aged alike, pushes buddy lists for business.

by David Needle, special to PC World

BURLINGAME, CALIFORNIA — If you still think of Big Blue as a stodgy old mainframe company, listen to the advice an IBM vice president offers developers building applications for the Internet: “When companies build a Web application, they should get a 16-year old to look at it. They don’t care about the back end, but they’ll tell you whether you have the buttons right,” says IBM’s John Patrick.

During a presentation at the Enterprise Outlook conference here this week, Patrick whooshed attendees through an entertaining discussion of the latest Web trends, unique sites, and a few relevant IBM products. The conference is sponsored by the consulting firm Technologic Partners.

While computer-savvy teenagers may “get” the Web better than any other age group, Patrick urged attendees not to forget about “e-elders.” The Web has proved a popular pastime and useful tool for millions of older users. As an example, Patrick cited a Heritage Village seniors’ community Web site, whose Webmaster was born in 1928. The computer club is the most popular of the 100 clubs at Heritage Village.

IBM Talks It Up

ICQ and AOL’s Instant Messenger are among the most popular “buddy list” applications, which let members see who among their friends, family, and associates are online and available to chat. IBM’s Lotus division has developed a similar application called Sametime that is more oriented to business users, which Patrick calls a vastly underserved market.

“I’ve seen estimates that there are 75 million users of instant messaging,” Patrick says. “If that’s true, 74.9 million of them are 16-year-olds who use it the minute they get home from school. But this is a very big deal for business.” Patrick says that more than 100,000 people use Sametime at IBM.

In addition to chat, Sametime offers audioconferencing, shared whiteboards, and shared applications. To ensure users won’t be pestered by unwanted online intrusions, Sametime provides privacy features. You can make your online presence known only to select others, or no one at all if you don’t want to be disturbed.

Patrick previewed an enhanced version of Sametime, due out this summer, which supports multilingual speech synthesis. In the demo, he sent a text message to a colleague in Germany asking about the weather. The software translated the message to German and read it using digitized speech. Likewise,Patrick received a response in German that was translated to English and read aloud on the fly.

The PC Is Not Dead

Patrick also commented on widely quoted remarks made earlier this year by IBM Chair Lou Gerstner to the effect that the PC is dead.

“Those comments were misunderstood. The PC is not dead, but it’s going to become a minority participant [when it comes to accessing the Web],” Patrick says. “You only have to look at the growth of devices like Web phones, MP3 players, and handheld computers to see why.”

Still, noting that 97 percent of users view the Web through a PC, Patrick concedes the PC will be top dog for a while yet.

“I’m not even sure PC growth will lessen,” Patrick says.”It’s just that we’re seeing so many other ways to connect to the Web.”

Inter, Intra, or Extra?

The Internet is really one big network, participants agreed in another session. This may seem obvious, but panelists were trying to dispel the notion that intranets (internal Web-based company networks) or extranets (a company’s network extension for customers) are separate from the Internet.

“They’re all part of one big TC/PIP network,” says Jim Greene, chief executive officer of Active Software. “The only difference is where you place the firewall.” Active provides network-based integration software for large companies that incorporate disparate information resources.

“I agree; there is really only one network, the Internet,” says Gordon Eubanks, the former chief executive officer of Symantec who now heads up Oblix, which provides directory-based intranet applications. Connecting users of different applications remains complex despite the promise of technologies like XML, Eubanks notes.

“There are not only different applications, but umpteen versions of the same application,” Eubanks says. “Being able to synchronize data is what’s really important. To say XML is going to let you hook Peoplesoft to SAP is really naive.”