Death to the Portal, Life to Apps

Death to the Portal, Life to Apps

The vision is compelling – portals, a window to the world, bright blue skies and calm seas. A single (personalised) point of access to relevant information, processes and people. A standardised user-experience that abstracts the inherent complexity of heterogeneous back-end applications to allow business users to see, share and do more. The promise of holistic business insight, cross application process-collaboration and intuitive usability for ultimate productivity.

So what happened? Why have the hatches been battened down? Why has the wind gone out of the sails? Why is no-one initiating large-scale portal initiatives? Why are we no longer building portlets and web parts?

In summary, universal enterprise portals have been abandoned due to complexity and superseded by apps.

Forgetting the pain of the 90’s and the panacea of ERP, the number and variety of back-end applications has proliferated, and now includes the additional complexity of accommodating both on-premise and cloud-hosted services. Attempting to wrap-up all of these critical business applications in a consistent portal context for seamless application integration and consistent user-interface presentation have proven to be a burden too heavy for most organisation to bear. Not even the evolving Java-based enterprise portal standards of JSR-168 and JSR-286 have helped, as most application vendors are still not yet surfacing standards-compliant portlet interfaces, and the internal effort to re-skin applications for portal presentation is not cost-justified.

One of the most promising portal-platforms for the masses was Microsoft SharePoint which was rapidly adopted as a de facto standard for intranet implementations. However, in the lurch towards the cloud, SharePoint has itself changed in complexion from a highly-customisable platform to a predominantly ‘out-of-the-box’ cloud application for simple SharePoint-centric people and document collaboration. SharePoint’s line of business integration capabilities, and web part presentation layer for aggregating enterprise application functionality, now reduced to a very fringe use-case. Even the joint commitment between Microsoft and SAP, reincarnated as DUET Enterprise 2.0 could not revive the fortunes of this portal concept, with very few organisations adopting this platform approach.

In place of a portal, we now have a focus on apps, accessed via a universal Launchpad. On the desktop, the transition of the desktop to an application Launchpad is exemplified by Windows 8. With touch screen interfaces now increasingly ubiquitous on both the desktop as well as on tablet devices, Windows 8, promises users direct access the applications they need in a highly personalised Launchpad. Live tiles provide summary information, and local apps are surfaced similarly to cloud hosted web applications.

But the ultimate portal interface, the most personal and direct connection users now have with technology, is undoubtedly the mobile device. Increasingly users expect a truly personal experience reflecting their need and priority for applications. In place of a central portal administrator defining what portlet users should have access to, the consumer-grade user-experience provides the end users themselves with the ability to deploy the apps they need, whether supplied by the enterprise or directly by third parties. Users are now expecting to find and utilise apps that are easy to use and fulfil the specific functionality required.

So, how has IQX Business Solutions, an organisation founded on the promise of portal-based insight, collaboration and productivity, responded to this change in paradigm?

Simply: instead of focusing on providing lipstick on a pig, by attempting to surface SAP information and functionality through SharePoint portal as an end goal DUET-style, we are now focused exclusively on the provision of integrated business process solutions. A modern, complete solution consists of the following essential elements: rich web-based applications for data input, cross application workflow management, native mobile applications for process monitoring and approval, and seamless ERP and document repository integration.

We have responded to the challenge of user-accessibility by providing our own Application Manager for solution discovery, installation and update, our own LaunchPad for application accessibility, Role Manager and View Manager for process customisation, Flow Manager for workflow definition and administration and OneList Approvals for aggregating all workflow tasks across applications in a single actionable task list. Our rapidly evolving list of pre-packaged process applications deal with discreet but critical business processes including: Capital Expenditure Approval, MyHR Employee Self Service, Vendor and product on-boarding, Non-stock Procurement, Invoice Processing, Pricing administration, Journal Processing, Rebate Management, Maintenance Inspections, as well as bespoke process solutions.

Furthermore, utilising the Xamarin framework we are able to leverage our .net expertise to create native mobile apps for key process steps for even richer user-experiences, offline processing and utilisation of advanced device capabilities such as the camera and GPS.

By Richard Frykberg