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Software firms push data applications off the desktop an


Software firms push data applications off the desktop and onto the WebtopMicrosoft, Sun, Oracle jockey for lead in Internet platform raceDespite mounting evidence that patients and providers remain reluctant to take their healthcare

Software firms push data applications off the desktop and onto the Webtop

Microsoft, Sun, Oracle jockey for lead in Internet platform race

Despite mounting evidence that patients and providers remain reluctant to take their healthcare transactions to the Web (see related story below), vendors in this market are under increasing pressure to push their businesses, or at least pieces of them, onto the Internet. Not surprisingly, enterprise software firms that have long touted the wonders of desktop medicine are responding with predominantly thin-client networking packages that promise to dramatically change the way healthcare is delivered—again. In fact, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, IBM, and other large technology firms have introduced Internet platform products and application service provider (ASP) strategies that are making product developers sit up and take notice.

One of the splashiest recent announcements came, of course, from Microsoft. The highly publicized Microsoft.Net product suite, introduced in June, realigns the company’s strategy away from its desktop dominance and toward the Internet. Like rivals Sun and Oracle, Microsoft has come to the conclusion that user demands will force the availability and accessibility of data beyond local hard drives and networks.

As part of its new Internet vision, Microsoft is billing .Net as cutting-edge technology for the e-environment. But competitors and analysts alike have criticized the company for being late to the party and showing up with an incomplete product.

Although Microsoft characterizes .Net as a standards-based platform, the firm has come under fire from advocacy groups like the Web Standards Project for including proprietary shortcuts and browser-specific dynamic HTML behaviors in the latest version of Internet Explorer 5.5, also part of the .Net family. Actions such as these call into question Microsoft’s support for open industry standards.

An integral part of Microsoft.Net’s success depends on adoption by the developer community. The .Net tools are based largely on extensible markup language (XML), a derivative of standard generalized markup language (SGML) like HTML, only more powerful. The firm believes that XML’s flexibility will enhance the interoperability and compatibility of products developed using .Net and enable the integration of data from legacy health information systems.

“We believe XML will be the lingua franca for the Internet,” said Rich Noffsinger, worldwide healthcare group marketing manager for Microsoft in Redmond, WA. “XML makes hard-to-categorize information accessible through tags so that different systems can talk to one another. The beauty of XML is that I can call a patient name ‘name’ or ‘identifier’ and an XML parser like BizTalk Server can match those up.”

Microsoft has already introduced some .Net tools, including VisualStudio.Net, an integrated development environment for building Web applications. The firm has also announced updated programs for Microsoft Certified Solution Providers and is emphasizing a strong commitment to the ASP model.

“We definitely are focused on technology and infrastructure that provide an environment for ASPs and believe the ASP model will absolutely prove successful,” Noffsinger said. “We think of it as an evolutionary process. Most doctors and many hospitals are not interested in running an IT staff or department.”

The firm is also working with hardware vendors to develop a mobile computing device about the size of a clipboard that has a larger screen than handheld computers running on Pocket PC. According to Noffsinger, the challenge with Internet-enabled mobile computers, especially for certain healthcare applications, has been the lack of screen real estate. While a beta version of the clipboard PC is not yet available, Noffsinger says most of the software is complete and that handwriting and voice recognition capabilities are in the works.

The Network Is The ComputerMicrosoft’s new Internet-focused strategy echoes Sun’s “network as computer” vision. With its acquisition last year of Star Division, a German provider of productivity software, Sun is pushing applications to the Internet with the StarOffice product suite. Sun also plans to release an ASP-based version of StarOffice called StarPortal by the end of the year and is increasing its own Internet presence with strategic investments in firms like AccessLine Communications, a provider of hosted voice communications; Manage.com, a developer of e-business products; and ONI systems, an optical networking communications firm.

“We see ourselves moving more and more toward a service-centric strategy,” said Tony Hampel, director of marketing for Webtop and Application Services at Sun. “StarPortal is very much where applications and data are handled on the server. The desktop can be a portable device, either a thin client or a thick client.”

Sun does not intend to charge for any of the StarOffice products. Instead, the Palo Alto, CA-based firm plans to use the popularity of ASP products such as StarPortal to stimulate sales of its servers, storage, and other hardware and services. More than 15 million copies of the Star software have been distributed since last August, and more than 3 million copies have been downloaded from the Web.

“We believe that software pricing is going to zero,” Hampel said. “Another reason we purchased Star was to drive that business model.”

According to Hampel, Sun is looking to create an integrated computing environment using the Web as the “glue.” He likens the growth of server-based computing to the growth of the banking industry.

“Not long ago, people didn’t want to leave their money in the bank because they thought it was unsafe. Data is going the same way; soon people will be concerned that having data on the desktop is unsafe,” he said.

In fact, StarPortal represents a significant shift in Sun’s networking strategy, according to Murtz Kizilbash, global group manager for healthcare. In the past, the firm has primarily been involved in healthcare infrastructure and OEM hardware. But Sun is working toward automating three large transaction areas—information, trade, and administrative processes—using Java-based products and XML to develop the necessary tools. And as the ASP model gains popularity, the company wants to provide the underlying technology and is banking on its networking background and Java platform to give it a leg up on Microsoft.

“Microsoft.Net basically says that what they’ve been telling you for 20 years is incorrect,” said Kizilbash. “All that technology, you should have it in the network. That’s what Java enables people to do.”

The Next Microsoft?Oracle, a Sun partner and primary Microsoft competitor, launched its own Internet platform at the end of June. The concurrent release of Internet Application Server (iAS) and Internet Developer Suite offers XML development support and complements Oracle’s May release of Internet File System (iFS), an extension for the Oracle 8i database. Oracle 8i allows more than 150 file types to be viewed as data, meaning that data from disparate systems are made accessible through a common file viewer.

Because of its end-to-end offerings, Oracle hopes to attract customers by emphasizing the ease of implementation and benefits of streamlined workflow. The firm is also highlighting the inclusion of XML support in the newest product releases. According to Bob Shimp, director of Internet platform marketing for Oracle, the benefit of using the full package with the database backbone is that users can access information from different sources out on the Web.

“In the healthcare industry, the workflow is complicated,” he said. “The need to share information is great. Because the Oracle Internet Platform is based on the Oracle database, we’re able to make it very reliable and very secure. This is especially important in healthcare, because you need to make sure that critical information is available to the doctors and is only viewed by the proper people.”

Up to now, Oracle has been its own best e-business customer, saving more than $1 billion internally by implementing its Internet platform software companywide, according to Shimp. Like Microsoft, however, Oracle has been criticized for integrating its software modules too well, although clients are not required to install an Oracle database to run platform components like iAS. iAS runs applications, but also provides features like dynamic data caching, forms services, portal services, and application integration. In fact, the software company has been forming alliances with hardware vendors like Compaq for its Internet Platform and Cisco for development of an Internet-based communications network.

“We will be announcing lots of new solutions with Compaq, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun,” Shimp said. “By next year, we’ll be to the point where you can order building blocks off the price list and have an e-business in 90 days or less, rather than having to build with bits and pieces of technologies.”

Like Sun and Microsoft, Oracle is also investing in ASPs. The company already offers two ASP products, iHost and Oracle Business Online, the latter of which is getting a lot of interest from the healthcare sector, according to Shimp. Oddly, the company doesn’t consider Microsoft.Net to be a competitive threat.

“Microsoft is a long way from being able to deliver a complete platform,” said Shimp. “I think it will take them a long while to sort out what they want to deliver. Oracle’s products are deliverable today. The only comparison you can make right now is that we have it and they don’t.”

The Courtship of HealthcareAlthough business is inexorably moving toward an Internetworked environment, the hardware and software platforms within legacy healthcare products will not fade away. Microsoft, Sun, and Oracle all emphasize backward compatibility and the importance of making existing data accessible through new e-based platforms that enhance interoperability and allow the open exchange of object-oriented data.

Indeed, the need to integrate legacy systems with Internet technology is driving consulting services revenue for healthcare information technology. And these enterprise software vendors share a common goal of freeing data from location restrictions to more readily enable the healthcare industry’s migration to an open-architecture environment.

“The healthcare industry has a ‘show-me’ attitude with regard to e-health,” Noffsinger said. “There is a great potential for e-business to cut down mismanagement and provide a smoother flow of information. I think you’ll see cautious but continual adoption of the Internet.”

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