Why corporate web sites stink

This post was also published in BusinessWeek.

There's a raft of new tools for improving the way sites interact with users — but many businesses have yet to learn how to use them

Why are so many new consumer Web sites so cool while business sites just sit in the Internet ether, flat and lifeless like old magazines stacked up in a dentist's waiting room?

It has a lot to do with some tools with names like LAMP, AJAX, and enterprise mash-ups. More on these in a moment. First, sit down while I explain why these new sites are hot, and your site is not.

In case you haven't noticed, consumer Web-site features and functionality have evolved dramatically over the last few years. Industry wags have labeled the new Web-development craze as "Web 2.0," and point to the likes of Google Maps, MySpace, and Zillow as examples of where the consumer Web experience is headed.

These new Web sites rock. They have rich user interfaces. You can move maps around with a mouse click. Menus and data just pop up right where you need them. And they somehow magically pull together information from all kinds of different sources on the fly, from current assessor's-office land valuations to the song list of a new band posted last night by your best friend.

Disconnect 2.0

Meanwhile, corporate Web sites and internal systems creak along. Blow off the dust and they look like relics from the mid-1990s. Customers wait for new pages to load when they click on links. When customers call corporate service centers, they are forced to wait while the person on the other end toggles between all sorts of different systems and reenters account information just to answer a simple question.

We have had this type of disconnect in the past. When "Web 1.0" happened in the late '90s, consumers could use the Internet to buy plane tickets, check the weather, and buy books. But when they went to work, if they wanted to change their health plan, they had to call HR. If they wanted to find the latest price of a part, they had to call their supplier and have a price sheet faxed to them. This disconnect between home and work life very quickly evaporated, and now virtually all information that people need at work is available online.

The current crop of Web applications offers the ability to integrate data from multiple sources in new and useful ways, including user-contributed data. HousingMaps.com, for example, "mashes up" different data sources (including craigslist and Google Maps) and allows the apartment hunter to focus on desired neighborhoods, and easily peruse all the info they need regarding the available properties. MySpace.com allows users to post their own movies and blogs and all sorts of cool stuff about themselves.

The list goes on and on — Flickr, Friendster, BaseCamp. Sites that popped up overnight are pushing the envelope on how data is delivered, and on the quality of the user experience.

Instant Info

Yet most Global 2000 Web sites (both consumer-facing and internal systems) still use technology that was developed in the late '90s. Blue-chip companies with $200 million annual marketing budgets are being put to shame by Web upstarts with a fraction of the money. Consumer sites regularly integrate data from numerous systems, whereas in business, integrating multiple systems causes a lot of heartache, takes an eternity, and makes IT budgets skyrocket.

So I'm going to fill you in on a few secrets that the Global 2000 executive crowd seems to have missed during the recent wave of Web-development innovation.

First is AJAX, which stands for "asynchronous JavaScript in XML." It's a technology that allows the Web browser to get data without having to refresh the page. One example you might be familiar with is online DVD-rental store Netflix (NFLX). It used to be that as you went through their list of movies, you would have to click on each one to read the description, and toggle back and forth between the descriptions and the list. That's no longer the case. Now, with AJAX, you can just hover over a particular title and up comes a little pop-up window that shows you the details.

Cheaper, Better Cornerstone

Next, there's LAMP, which makes these sites run. In case you're one of the corporate blue hairs that's behind the times, Java is no longer the "cool" developer language for Web sites. The Yahoo!'s (YHOO) and MySpaces of the world are writing their Web sites with the LAMP open-source stack, which stands for the "Linux operating system, Apache web server, MySQL database, and PHP/Perl/Python scripting languages." The LAMP software stack is fast, free, easy to use, and contains best-of-breed components that have been hardened for years by thousands of engineers working for free.

And the new crop of Web sites aren't signing huge checks to IBM (IBM) and BEA Systems (BEAS) — they're managing farms of inexpensive commodity hardware running this open-source stack. No one is saying run your back-end, transaction-processing systems on open source, or any other new technology for that matter. Rather, the LAMP stack is a quick and flexible tool for tying together your existing systems with a rich, interactive user interface.

And finally, there are "Enterprise Mash-Ups" (aka "composite applications"). Just like consumer-facing Web sites that "mash up" multiple data sources, businesses can mash up business applications. For example, a business could integrate data from CRM (customer relationship management ) and ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems, as well as from FedEx, so that a customer-service rep can see all the necessary info in one place when dealing with a customer.

Communicating Apps

That means no more forcing customers to wait while the service rep scrolls through a bunch of screens drawing information from different systems and applications (that's the clicking sound you hear when you call your airline for a reservation). And what's really cool is that some of the cutting-edge software vendors are opening up their applications' programming interfaces, making them easier to customize and better able to communicate with other types of applications and data sources.

Salesforce (CRM) recently kicked off its AppExchange Developer Network, which is basically its effort to fuel the development of new ways to integrate services and customize Salesforce services. There's no question the software industry is moving away from applications that run in silos, all by themselves (for example, without any interoperability between sales and manufacturing), to applications that communicate with each other (even if delivered from different vendors), giving businesses the ability to bring the same degree of customization and functionality that we're seeing today with the consumer-facing Web 2.0 applications.

So not only are these new sites fast, fun, and more interesting to visitors, they're also cheaper to build, deploy, and maintain. Some get built literally in days for less than your business pays a system administrator in salary. Isn't it about time to take your big company Web site out of the Ice Age? Jump on board. The Web 2.0 train is leaving the station.