Objects Put Life into
Web Sites

By Don Monkerud

While some companies continue to put up static Web pages, others are exploring methods to distribute, sell and provide information about their products in an engaging and exciting way.

In the fast-changing realm of the Internet, it's probably not too early to talk about the second generation of World Wide Web sites. These new sites can be characterized by customizability of information, responsiveness to individual users and truly interactive presentation. As the Web evolves from static data to active data, it is moving toward object-based software systems. Objects become useful in this context because, by definition, they join software code and data.

Sophisticated information providers and retailers realize that Web site visitors don't want to flip through dozens of screens to find the information they need, wait for large files to download or passively read generalized information. Until now, the main way to present information to users was in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) format. Recently, a number of object-oriented Internet authoring tools began making interactive Web sites possible by displaying on the user's screen only the information that person wants.

Objects provide a modular way of organizing, configuring and reusing code instead of recreating the wheel each time a new routine is written. When users click on a Web page, for example, they are downloading objects into their client machines. This combination of data and code can be configured in new ways, manipulated and operated actively. Instead of presenting the same information statically, on a Web page the data becomes interactive or shows the user new information.

"Sun's Java and ActiveX from Microsoft allow one to put object-based systems out through the Web," says Bruce Daniels, principal project investigator at Sun Microsystems Laboratories in Mountain View, CA. "You have to use an object-based system to support these interfaces. Essentially those two new systems have allowed the Web to become object-oriented."

"Objects simplify the task of displaying applications customized to the individual needs of a user manipulating a browser," says Mike West, vice president and research director at the Gartner Group in Aptos, CA. "With objects and Web technology--HTML, scripting languages, applets, components and interfaces to external services--we have, for the first time, the possibility of creating functional human interfaces entirely customizable to the needs of each user."

Whether you think of it as the next generation of client/server, a new paradigm or simply another wrinkle in the development of the Internet, object technology allows companies to share business applications on the Internet. Given HTML as the presentation layer, scripting languages to extend complex logic and the hard-coded functionality of applets, applications become independent of the underlying operating system and can operate across platforms, freeing users from resource-hungry and database-limited desktops.

Pushing the Envelope

The demand to develop Web applications is pushing almost every company to undertake projects that explore how these tools can tap the vast potential of a worldwide virtual marketplace. One such project, which will be rolled out this fall, is from R. R. Donnelley's Coris division in Willowbrook, IL. Donnelley is a printing services company that does business with every major publisher in the world. Its Coris division used Java to create WebDirect, an adjunct to its PowerBase Publishing System that has both a standard user interface and applications that allow customers universal access over the Web without first having to receive a diskette or download files onto their hard disks.

Donnelley developers, working under Tom Boos, senior vice president of IT services and development, used Java applets to create applications that allow customers to log on to a Donnelley Web site; upload software, images, desktop publishing application files and job instructions; manipulate or lay out the text or data they want to publish; and place orders that will be printed on paper near where the customer wants the job delivered or published on a CD-ROM or a Web site. Users download only the functions they need via a Java applet.

The development team is using a prerelease version of Oracle's Inner Office System for the document management layer. The PowerBase Publishing System server component runs on Solaris on Sun servers. The WebDirect client interfaces are connected to the server via TCP/IP connections. The TCP/IP network supports connections of this interface via ISDN, Donnelley's intranet, client networks gatewayed to Donnelley's network and the Web. Because WebDirect is a Java-enabled user interface based on the Netscape Web browser, it will available for most Unix systems, Windows, OS/2 and Macintosh.

"This is a content system that's Web-enabled by supporting submissions from authors, ad agencies and artists so they can assemble a publication in a collaborative environment," says Boos. "We have also developed applications that allow us to 'multipurpose' client content for print, CD-ROM and Web distribution. This technology allows us to publish magazines, journal articles and catalogs from a common source, in multiple media using just-in-time manufacturing technology."

Adventures in Retailing

Anyone who has to recreate company information out of HTML to place it on Web sites knows that, even with easier-to-use conversion tools, there has to be a better way. Retail firms are among the most avid pursuers of Web users. As a result, several have ground-breaking development projects well under way.

A Web site using objects to create Web pages on the fly will soon be online from Reebok International in Stoughton, MA. Based on individual preferences, Reebok's Versa Training application on the Planet Reebok site is interactive. It gives women information for a total strength, flexibility and cardiovascular fitness program based upon their input. The user chooses her fitness goals and fitness level and charts her fitness program.

"The user chooses the information she needs and the server delivers it," says Marvin Chow, interactive marketing manager at Reebok. "Instead of getting 10 pages of information, she can go to one page with the specific information she is looking for. We build dynamic pages depending upon what the customer wants to see. Instead of looking at 1,500 shoes, she can look at only the 50 she's interested in. We're selling not just products but pieces of information."

Reebok used WebObjects from Next Software of Redwood City, CA, to build these server applications, which run on the Sun Solaris variant of Unix. WebObjects accesses data in Reebok's servers that contain information on the company's 1,600 different kinds of footwear, which is produced twice a year in the fall and spring. Smaller quarterly introductions add to the mix of products. "Now we can go in and add, delete and change, making universal changes across the board," says Chow. "This gives us flexibility."

The Sharper Image, based in San Francisco, also was looking for a way to energize its Web site. Using WebObjects, Sharper Image will integrate the site into the company's existing computing infrastructure within a few months, making the constant updating of static Web pages unnecessary. The Web site will automatically update new products that are added to the database management system. Customers will have access to products in multiple, logical categories, just as they would in a store. The Web site will pull information from the company's different databases for images, copy, layout and processing orders.

Web catalog orders will be placed on line using CyberCat, an order management system developed by Evergreen Internet of Chandler, AZ. In this environment, CyberCat runs on Solaris on Sun servers. The catalog system's architecture allows for flexibility on both client and server sides. Because CyberCat and WebObjects have been ported to multiple platforms, Sharper Image does not have to put strict constraints on the hardware it uses. Likewise, the proliferation of the HTML standard allows users to access the catalog through nearly any available Web browser.

"WebObjects takes information from the customer and builds each individual page on demand," says Josh Tretakoff, manager of alternative media for Sharper Image. "It brings images from our image database, finds the copy and places it according to the layout rules and the number of images the page needs, updates the order entry screen and places orders in a shopping cart. Once the system is complete, we plan to cut 24 hours off our delivery time."

Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse in Burlington, NH, is in the middle of planning a transition from character-based terminals to graphical clients, using Java and Web-based development to deploy applications and concurrently planning virtual store applications. According to Michael Prince, chief information officer, objects are the best way to build commercial retail applications. The company is investigating the development of object-based modules in Java, as well as the Oracle object toolsets, Developer 2000 and Designer 2000, to display merchandise online from dynamically created pages, build a virtual shopping cart, place orders and verify credit cards.

The new Web-based network will offer consumers convenient virtual shopping, reach geographical and international areas where Burlington Coat has no physical outlets and become the corporate-wide networking structure for functions such as record keeping, training and online transaction processing (OLTP). Within a year, Prince expects to be running all corporate applications on user-friendly browsers rather than the character-based Unix system now in place.

Previously the clients ran on large-scale servers from Sequent Computer. The Web-based system is facilitating a reconfiguration. "We're going to three-tier client/server on the Web," says Prince. "The browser will be the first tier, the middle tier will be the Web server on a Unix box and the Oracle database will be the third tier. This is superior to a two-tier architecture with an expensive PC on the desktop and lots of data passing between the PC and the database."

Burlington Coat does not plan to integrate the Web into the corporate infrastructure--the Web will become the infrastructure. Every desktop will have a browser, all applications will run on the browsers and the Web will become a strategic environment.

Bright Prospects

Other companies also see the potential to use the Web to extend their client/server architectures and of objects as a way to deploy applications in this new environment. Steve McClure, director of object technologies research at International Data Corp. in Framingham, MA, predicts that by 1999 companies worldwide will be spending more than $4 billion annually on object-oriented development tools. The ability to create Web applications, primarily with objects, is becoming a common feature of development tools. By the end of the year, nearly every tool will have an Internet component, he says.

For example, PowerBuilder from Sybase subsidiary Powersoft in Concord, MA, supports major platforms for building Web-based applications, although the Unix and Macintosh version of PowerBuilder 5 won't be ready until the second half of 1996. Powersoft anticipates that its hundreds of thousands of users will want to migrate applications to the Internet. However, according to Keith Daniel, vice president of Internet products, it doesn't make sense for user organizations that have invested significantly in deploying mission-critical client/server applications to abandon their investments by rehosting applications in a Web browser environment. Instead, Powersoft believes these companies will opt for Internet access to existing applications.

"Accessing databases is the new wave," says Daniel. "People are looking for more dynamic information on the Internet, and they want to see something different when they log on to the same site. The Internet needs to be enhanced with more data to provide better service."

Nevertheless, we are in the early stages of moving applications to the Internet. A number of issues must be resolved, including maturation of tools, such as better HTML editors. Companies demand guaranteed response times like those they are used to on their internal networks. Security remains an important issue due to the many competing standards for secure transactions. The ability to meld and manage a session, rather than having separate disconnected pages, also has to be resolved to spur widespread deployment of Internet applications.

A third party using PowerBuilder to create a new business by building applications for the Internet for other companies is Analytical Technologies (Anatec), an Internet client/server systems integrator in Houston. It developed a class library, called IWebclass, which allows the swapping of different objects to create dynamic client/server Internet applications. This class library can be used to create online catalogs for vertical industries through a Netscape browser.

Anatec built an application of base class objects for each of the four hierarchies of the Web--the operating system, the Web engine, multiple browsers and multiple databases--and then inherited (passed definitions) from each class to build specific objects for various Web servers. The architecture recognizes which server it is running on and what type of browser is accessing it, and it can connect to various databases. Output is optimized for the browser being used.

Using the application, Anatec built an online catalog and ordering system for Professional Health Products (PHP), a regional medical supply reseller in Houston. The company now sells more than 500 specialty medical supplies online to some 5,000 customers, who used to receive a catalog six times a year. Customers can search an index of the product catalog or bypass the index and begin ordering. A user can drill down to GIF and JPEG graphics of the items and place orders directly on the screen, using ID numbers that automatically guarantee the correct discount. PHP anticipates up to a 10 percent increase in sales due to the new service.

Standards for Interoperating

How various application development tools will fare in the marketplace remains to be seen. There are competing standards--primarily the Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA), OpenDoc, Microsoft's OLE/COM and ActiveX, and now Java--and every vendor is building Internet capabilities into its applications. The most excitement focuses on object-oriented applications that run across sites or between clients and servers, rather than using objects on an internal Web site.

"There are many methodologies and tools in place, but little is actually delivered yet," says Will Zachman, president of Canopus Research in Duxbury, MA. "OpenDoc and CORBA are the most technologically advanced in theory, but that doesn't mean they have the winning technology. The winning technology is what's available and good enough to do the job, not what's conceptually elegant."

CORBA is promoted by the Object Management Group (OMG), a nonprofit consortium based in Framingham, MA. OpenDoc is developed under the auspices of Component Integration Laboratories (CI Labs), another nonprofit industry association in Sunnyvale, CA, which promotes interoperability among software components by acting as a clearinghouse where developers register components and ensure that they work together. Recently, OMG adopted OpenDoc specifications to bring together server-based CORBA developers with client-based OpenDoc developers. (For more on these and competing technologies, see "Object Middleware Starts to Take Shape" in our July 1996 issue.)

"Component technologies both for the Internet and for distributed systems will finally come together," says Frank Mara, president of CI Labs. "We will see capabilities offered to developers and end users that are beyond what we see today. The Internet of today isn't the Internet of tomorrow."

This promise is likely to be a while in arriving. According to Cyndi Nickel, object products manager at Hewlett-Packard in Cupertino, CA, the industry is coalescing around a vision of component interoperability, but the vision still lacks certification, cataloguing and good repositories. "Once repositories are in place, we will be able to assemble applications from these components and deploy them in client/server or on the Internet," says Nickel. "Lots of technology is still needed to make this vision actual."

The Internet world is crowded with technologies that solve different sets of problems: embedding technologies, component frameworks, object models, plumbing APIs and object-oriented dynamic languages. While the complete set of infrastructure technologies is not in place yet, significant progress has been made in the last year. In the coming year, the main battles for standards will involve OpenDoc/CORBA, Java and ActiveX. This may boil down to the difference between an open, multiplatform or a proprietary, single-platform solution. Whichever direction they go in, object technologies are on the move.

Don Monkerud writes about business and computer issues from Aptos, CA. He can be reached at 70713.2215@compuserve.com.