SOA Aids Vets Transition to Civilian Life; The Shortcomings of Corporate Blogs; Tough Times for PC Makers and More

This issue of Trendlines from the 8/15/08 issue of CIO magazine covers the latest technology news including the IT behind the upcoming Republican and Democrat National Conventions and new reports on how corporate blogs engage customers and how the economy is affecting PC manufacturers.

Vets Win Talent War With SOA

Hire A Hero is a small firm with a big mission: helping military personnel transition to civilian life by connecting them with potential employers using Web 2.0 social networking tools. After some fits and starts, it found that a solution built on service-oriented architecture (SOA) enabled it to achieve its goals at a low cost. What's more, because of its nonprofit status, some vendors donated the services for free.

When Hire A Hero started, it had visions of building its own system. But Executive Director Brac Selph knew that if his company were to survive, it needed a new plan that involved working with existing services. So he cobbled together a solution that involved two software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendors and a data integration tool to act as a bridge between the two systems.

The first piece was Salesforce.com, a customer relationship management tool built on the SaaS model. Hire A Hero was already using Salesforce to organize information about employees and potential employers. Salesforce helped automate many processes by building in business logic normally used for a sales channel. So if members didn't send a resume, they got an automatic reminder e-mail message. Salesforce donated the service.

The next piece was a front-end Web tool to enable employers and employees to enter information about themselves into the system and provide social networking functionality. Selph found an SaaS vendor called YourMembership.com, whose tool provided 80 percent of the functionality he wanted for just $500 a month. It also let him eliminate technical staff, saving $200,000 a year.

The final piece: finding a data integrator to help get data from YourMembership into Salesforce. Selph began exploring the Salesforce AppExchange for a solution. XAware offered an open-source solution that would work; XAware would provide it for free.

Hire A Hero was now ready to begin automating the data transfer. But there was a problem: YourMembership lacked an open API, and that meant XAware couldn't communicate directly with it to grab data. The solution involved generating a report manually. Despite this, Selph says it still greatly simplified the data transfer and reduced the likelihood of an error during the exchange. Even without the API, there was just a single file to deal with; the XAware tool took care of field mapping, new field creation and duplicate records purging.

Selph advises organizations with similar projects to look beyond the surface of what a company does. Salesforce is a CRM vendor; YourMembership is used by alumni groups. "Be creative because the [SaaS vendor] may market themselves as one thing, but they could fit your needs as well."

Hire A Hero may be small, but the lessons it learned about using a services model could apply to any organization trying to boost efficiency and cut costs.

-Ron Miller

Corporate Blogs Fail to Engage Customers

A new report by Forrester Research found that most corporate blogs kept by business-to-business firms failed to energize their intended audiences and engage them in meaningful conversations about trends and products.

The number of corporate blogs being started also experienced a setback. In 2006, Forrester counted 36 firms that were introducing such blogs on their public websites. In 2007, the number of firms introducing a corporate blog dropped to 19.

But the blogs that exist right now are failing to capture an audience, and a big reason could be the content. Of 90 enterprise-sized companies with corporate blogs that Forrester examined, 71 percent of the content was "light company or business topics," with only 16 percent injecting "moderate personal insight" and only 13 percent using personal anecdotes. About 56 percent of blogs "regurgitate company news or executive views."

The number of comments these corporate blogs received reflects customer reaction to such lackluster content. About 58 percent of blogs saw one or no comments per post. Sixteen percent received one comment and only 13 percent had more than one per post.

To combat this problem, Forrester says, companies should encourage corporate bloggers to start conversations with readers rather than dominate the blog with product launch information. They should also have a clear objective (an "about this blog" area) that explains the blog's overall purpose to readers. Lastly, they should employ pictures, videos and other forms of virtual media to engage readers.

-C.G. Lynch

Analysts: Tough Times Ahead for PC Makers

The worldwide PC market grew at a healthy 15.3 percent in the second quarter, but the weak economy means tough times, and a wave of consolidation may lie ahead for PC makers, according to industry analysts.

The weak economy has already started taking its toll on the U.S., where belt-tightening among businesses and consumers has led to PC shipment growth in the low single digits, according to figures from IDC (a sister company to CIO's publisher).

To stay competitive, PC makers are slashing prices. That's good news for end users but could mean the end for smaller PC makers if the trend continues. The leading makers can reduce their costs by working with suppliers to get better deals, but smaller vendors don't have that type of leverage, says David Daoud, an IDC research manager. U.S. PC shipments grew just 3.6 percent in the quarter to 17 million units, down from IDC's original prediction of 3.8 percent, Daoud says.

A separate survey by Gartner reported that PC shipments in EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa) grew 23.5 percent, while shipments in Asia-Pacific climbed 18.1 percent, according to a survey by Gartner. Notebook sales were particularly strong, growing 40 percent worldwide, it said.

According to Gartner, Apple overtook Acer in the U.S. to take third place behind Dell and HP, shipping 1.4 million units, compared with Acer's 1.3 million. IDC had Acer and Apple neck and neck.

Worldwide, HP retained its spot as top PC vendor, shipping 13.3 million units for an 18.9 percent share of the market. Dell shipped 11.6 million units for a 16.4 percent market share. Acer was in third place with 7 million units shipped.-Agam Shah

Conventions Spark Political Passion With IT

The Democratic and Republican National Conventions have very different political agendas, but they do have one common goal: to use technology to make the conventions more appealing to the voting public.

This objective is something both Republicans and Democrats pursue every four years. While 2004 saw its share of Internet-based advances in fund-raising, online community building and e-mail campaigns, this year the parties hope to use IT to take things a step furtherboth to broadcast their messages and to make up for the dwindling network television coverage of the events. For instance, YouTube has partnerships with both the Democratic and Republican National Convention Committees, which give the public a chance to parade their political pride by creating videos revealing which party they support in '08. Both also have YouTube channels for posting convention-related content.

Some other ways the parties use IT to work the crowds at their conventions:

Democrat National Convention

Where:

Pepsi Center, Denver

When: Aug. 25-28

What: High-definition, gavel-to-gavel streaming video and a "state blogger corps" that will sit on the convention floor with the individual state delegations. Plans also call for video available via the convention's YouTube channel.

The Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC) plans to use Microsoft's new Silverlight 2 cross-platform, cross-browser plug-in to deliver rich media and interactive applications. Silverlight 2 isn't even due for public release until the fall, so the DNCC will use beta software, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft is also working with another partner, Infusion Development, on a Silverlight- and SQL Server-based delegate voting system that will provide up-to-the-minute delegate vote totals. Other custom applications include one for tracking individual delegates and another for keeping tabs on Microsoft's own carbon footprint at the convention, part of the DNCC's green initiative.

The DNCC, however, is not using Microsoft technology exclusively. The website will run open-source Apache servers on Linux, along with Windows servers. Site content and staff blogs are handled by the open-source SilverStripe content management system and framework. (To learn more, read "Democratic Convention to Showcase Video Using Microsoft Silverlight 2 Beta.")

Republican National Convention

Where:

Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul, Minn.

When: Sept. 1-4

What: Web-based video from the convention floor and other venues, provided by a variety of vendors. The Web strategy also calls for submissions from outside the convention by members of the public, and real-time chat sessions with convention delegates.

Convention partner Ustream.tv will host streaming video during the event from a studio alongside "radio row," the spot where dozens of radio stations line up to interview delegates during the big show.

Telecommunications vendor (and GOP convention partner) Qwest has promised up to a gigabyte of bandwidth to all points inside the Xcel Energy Center. The GOP also is working with national wireless providers to bolster cellular service inside the arena. (To learn more, read "Republicans' Web 2.0 Aims: Streaming Convention Video, Online Chats, User-Generated Content.")

-Carol Sliwa and Matt Villano

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

Discover what your peers are reading. Sign up for our FREE email newsletters today!