Objects Put Life into
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
Don Monkerud writes about business and computer issues
from Aptos, CA. He can be reached at email@example.com.