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Northstar: IBM’s New Grand Unification Theory?

by Craig Roth  |  July 21, 2010  |  Comments Off on Northstar: IBM’s New Grand Unification Theory?

What’s the difference between the real universe and the IT universe?

In the real universe, the grand unification theory is unknown, but an eternal truth. In the IT universe the grand unification theory is known with certainty, but changes every 10 years.

IBM announced its new grand unification vision (dubbed “Northstar”) at its Portal Excellence conference this week. Of course, enterprise portals were the grand unification theory when they emerged in the early 2000’s. But new massive centers of gravity (stars such as social software and smartphones) continue to be discovered and once the old view of the universe can’t handle them, a new theory needs to be invented.

Northstar is a vision statement for taking portals to a higher level: “web experience”. It is IBM’s attempt to get beyond the portal product box, although it’s not a product – just a vision that guides development and acquisition and helps align IBM’s product portfolio. A new vision is needed since “portal” doesn’t make the blood boil (and wallets open) like it used to.

Northstar is mostly defined in terms of customer-facing portals, although it could be applicable inside the firewall as well. That is a sensible position for IBM since they clearly have a competitive strength over SharePoint on major customer-facing “.com” sites (or is that a relative weakness on employee portals? Two sides of the same coin).

What does it really mean? For portal implementers, it basically says not to be scared that IBM will sit on its portal laurels and to expect more “cohesive and consumable extensions”, “accelerated deployment”, and a commitment to “lead” (which translates into R&D dollars being spent).

As the Northstar vision encompasses seamless integration of portal, unified communications, social software, mobile technology, and rich media, I wonder if organizations are ready to leverage it. Organizations have developed organizational and cultural barriers between each of these areas that prevent unification even if the technology exists to do so. For example, social media in organizations is usually a clique-ish offshoot of marketing with a different decision process and incentives that make seamless ongoing integration with traditional web marketing difficult. And click-to-call from a personalized website (a UC and portal integration) may be technically feasible. But are training, call routing tables (owned by operations, not online marketing), incentives (are these calls longer or shorter for agents rated on calls per hour?), and headcount (operations needs to spend headcount to make the online department look good) aligned to make this happen? A hobby of mine is trying to determine the organizational structure and incentives of a company based on their website – it’s all too easy for this reason.

In any case, it’s just a vision for now. Usually these vision things start as being mostly consulting engagements for the rare few that attempt it, and become more solid (=productized) over time. I look forward to seeing how grand this unification theory is – until the next one is discovered.

Category: portals  

Tags: ibm  northstar  portal  websphere  

Craig Roth
Research VP, Tech and Service Providers
7 years at Gartner
28 years IT industry

Craig Roth is a Research Vice President focused on cloud office suites, collaboration tools, content management, and how they are being impacted by digital workplace and digital business trends...Read Full Bio

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