Microsoft's Digital Dashboard

In my column "Come the Portals" in the Sept. 8 issue, I discussed the emerging corporate portal phenomenon. Some analysts have coined the term enterprise information portal (EIP) to distinguish corporate portals -- which are primarily used by internal users -- from Internet portals, such as Netcenter, Lycos, or Yahoo, which are targeted at an audience of public Internet users.

A significant number of companies are moving into the EIP marketplace. These range from startups such as Plumtree, Glyphica, and InfoImage, to established vendors such as SAP, Oracle, and Sybase. One of the latest entrants is Microsoft. This summer Microsoft announced the Digital Dashboard -- its product for the EIP market. Microsoft defines the Digital Dashboard as, "A customized Microsoft Office 2000 solution for knowledge workers that consolidates personal, team, and corporate information with single-click access to analytical and collaborative tools." The Digital Dashboard is primarily a set of Web pages that run embedded within a Microsoft Outlook 2000 frame.

This architecture is typical of the Microsoft approach for several reasons. First, most other portal products use a Web browser as the client. By using Outlook 2000 for the Digital Dashboard user interface, Microsoft protects its hegemony on the desktop while, at the same time, using Web technology to deliver applications and data. This provides functionality that is competitive with the other portal vendors. Second, this approach allows Microsoft to leverage the investment it and many of its developers have made in ActiveX controls and Active Server Pages. Third, the fact that Outlook 2000 is the client simplifies the process of designing the user interface -- since most of the work is already done. Of course, if you don't like the Microsoft Outlook 2000 user interface you're not going to be happy with the limited choices available. Finally, this approach ties in the EIP with Microsoft Exchange and BackOffice -- including SQL Server 7 -- which gives the portal developer a strong infrastructure to work with.

But there is a downside to consider before deciding to use Digital Dashboard as a corporate portal. If you use Digital Dashboard, your ability to customize and personalize the user interface will be limited because Microsoft hard-coded it somewhat.

Second, since the portal Web pages operate within Outlook 2000 they don't always operate as they would in a standard browser. For example, browser frame tags such as <frameset> and <iframe> don't work properly. Web forms and tabular data controls don't always work correctly. Finally, if you define a Web link using the TARGET="_blank" property it won't open a new browser window.

There is also the issue of deployment and administration. One appealing feature of a browser-based EIP application is that there is little desktop administration required. With Outlook 2000 you will need to deploy and administer hundreds or thousands of desktops and Exchange servers for the portal to work effectively. Microsoft notes in one of its white papers, "The first step in building a Digital Dashboard is connecting Outlook Today to your custom HTML page. This is done with a simple registry entry." The administrative load can be significant when you have to make the registry entry to 5,000 desktops. If you are deploying Office 2000 to all the desktops, then it's not as much of an issue. Many organizations have provided Office 2000 to all users, but others are restricting deployment to users based on need. If your company isn't deploying Office 2000 on all desktops, then the deployment and configuration administration problem is going to be more complex.

Another consideration is external portal access. Allowing external users, such as suppliers or distributors, to have access to the EIP can improve the efficiency of a business by facilitating communications between members of the extended enterprise. If your corporate portal is implemented in Outlook 2000, however, this will be impossible. External users are not part of your NT domain and you cannot access their desktops.

If you want more information about Digital Dashboard, visit Microsoft's Web site at www.microsoft.com/digitalnervoussystem/km/digitaldashboard.htm. There is a lot of information there, including the Digital Dashboard Starter Kit, which is available for download. The Web site also has a rolling demo that illustrates some of the Digital Dashboard functionality. --Robert Craig is vice president of marketing at WebXi Inc. (Burlington, Mass.), and a former director at the Hurwitz Group Inc. Contact him at rcraig@webxi.com.