The ubiquity of the Internet means that every piece of software is potentially a Web development tool, whether it's graphic design software or a database application.
"Everything is a tool," says Peter Moore, CEO of Cortex, a startup Web integrator based in Sydney. "Unless it's the specific application at the end, it's a tool. You could even say Word is a Web development tool if you really wanted to, because people use it to write the site maps, but that's probably starting to get silly."
With such a vast array of choice, Web developers have to set priorities when choosing development tools. However, the client's requirement should be the primary consideration. Different tools are used for different jobs, and there is a huge difference between front-end design tools and back-office or middleware integration tools.
Davyd Norris, software engineering specialist at Rational Software, notes that individual point tools are inadequate in isolation. "It's important to understand the Web as a business," Norris says. "A Web development tool is not just about Web pages, it's about back-end, data etc. Any one point tool is not enough - you either need a series of point tools or one tool that does the lot."
Cortex's Moore says it can be particularly difficult identifying the client's requirements when dealing with startups.
"Saying you want to build an online store doesn't narrow it down much. You need to know whether you want a catalogue of 2000 products or a catalogue of 20 products. It's really, really challenging, especially when you're dealing with startups. Startups tend to be run by visionaries and by the time they've finished describing what it is they want to do, they've defined amazon plus eBay."
Selecting tools to meet the requirements is obviously paramount, but no technology choice is made in a vacuum and it is equally important to select tools that complement the client's existing systems.
Teresa White, director of Sydney-based Web development firm Whitewolf, says the technology decisions for back-end components like databases are typically already made.
"The decision should be made on the corporate environment and existing infrastructure," White explains. "The Internet and Web effort is built around the company's technical environment. Web development organisations work with existing technology - we don't reinvent the wheel."
For White, the most important factor in selecting Web development software is whether the tool is open source or proprietary.
"We're an open architecture company so we embrace all tools. We don't limit ourselves by proprietary choices. We're limiting risk in the long term by choosing open standards and open architecture."
But White concedes this choice is best made in the context of the client's existing IT environment. "The company needs to understand where they are positioned. If you deploy software within a Microsoft environment, it's commercially savvy to use Microsoft technology. If you take an open standard approach, Java is good. Don't let the technology drive the business."
Open source software can save a company a lot of money and limit the risk of vendors disappearing from the market. Yet Cortex's Moore points out that unless an open source project is widely supported, the strategic risk of the standard disappearing is very similar to proprietary software.
"Open source lives and dies by its interest," Moore says. "We evaluate open source in exactly the same way we evaluate a company. It's not so much if it's open source but whether it's going in the right direction and whether we can tailor the product to our specific needs."
There can be strategic advantages to using tools from name-brand vendors, according to Chris Stockton, director, Asia Pacific's BIS, C&S at Somerset Systems, which is a division of Candle Corporation.
"We don't tend to use the newer development tools. A lot are version one. Our market is high-end retail, high-end banking, high-end insurance and the risk is too great. We are typically working with the Microsofts and IBMs of the world."
Stockton's checklist for choosing software includes the level of local support and infrastructure, the existence of functioning reference sites to check code, and the future direction and stability of the company from a due diligence point of view.
With the high cost of training, Cortex's Moore believes Web development firms need to consider themselves as well as their clients.
"We select a tool not only on how well it meets the immediate requirement, but also how it fits in strategically," says Moore. "Every time we pick up a new tool, we lose billable hours by the truckload while everyone gets up to speed. You have to make sure [the tool] will add value to your company as you go forward. Even if [it's open source and] you don't pay for it, it's still an investment."
Managing the process
The decisions don't end with the selection of the construction tools and technology platform. Equally important is the choice of tools to help coordinate the Web development process and manage the completed site.
Rational's Norris says good design is the critical factor in Web development, and a good communication process is required to achieve that.
"It's the combination of getting the front end, back end and middleware right and being able to unify them," says Norris. "No one particular thing contributes to a Web site's success but every one of them can lead to failure. It's a team effort."
Rational was one of the founders of unified modelling language (UML), a graphical language used in software design and adopted as an industry standard in 1997.
People still face the same problems building software that they always have, but the Web has exacerbated the problems, because time frames are months or weeks rather than years.
Norris believes UML aids communication between various teams building software or Web applications. "A graphic designer knows nothing about process but lots about the look and feel and functionality, while engineers know all about process but nothing about design," Norris said. "If you let either group build a Web site on their own you end up with a mess. Studies show the main reason for success or failure is communication, and that's why it's so important for everyone to speak the same language."
Room to resell
There are numerous opportunities for the channel to sell Web development and site management tools to their clients. Peter Raven, national alliance manager for Web development software distributor Firmware Design, said his reseller base is national and includes developers, retailers, systems integrators, retailers and traditional resellers. Firmware Design distributes Macromedia, Allaire and Webtrends products, with a range catering from home user through to high-end corporate.
Raven says Firmware provides ample support for resellers. "Each of the products are specialised but complementary. Resellers need an understanding of how to up-sell particular products. Our support to resellers includes 90 days free technical support and training and consultation."
Raven says the lower-end products tend to be sold off the shelf in retail outlets with technical support from Firmware, but the higher-end products require consultation and services from developers and integrators.
Developers are typically involved in consultation and assisting implementation with end users, while integrators can leverage existing relationships with clients to sell Web development software.
"Systems integration was originally hardware [and networking], and the natural add-on was software. That's now moved into Web development," Raven said. "It gives integrators extra mindshare because when they are speaking to clients about their systems they can " qualify their requirements for the Web site. It's an extra sell because customers would rather deal with one company."
Selling tools to enable clients to manage their Web sites in the post-construction phase is another key reseller opportunity, according to Whitewolf's White.
White is currently looking for channel partners for Whitewolf's Web management product, websiteMAX, and she is hoping to partner with resellers, Web developers and application service providers (ASPs).
White says it is far more cost effective for companies to manage their own Web sites than to outsource it to a Web development company. Consequently, Web management tools are potentially a lucrative source of revenue for the channel.
"Within our Web services group, the time taken to develop a Web site using websiteMAX is approximately 25 per cent of the time it takes without websiteMAX," White says. "To manage the content yourself using websiteMAX rather than send it to a company takes about 10 per cent of the time. The cost of managing Web sites is much greater than the cost of building sites."
Faster development time has also meant the rise of component software, where developers can buy application parts and frameworks.
"Reusable components will become a commodity," says Rational's Norris. "There was a mindset in the industry that it was better to recode than reuse because nobody else would do it as well. That's come to an end because of the [shorter] timeframes. You can't afford to rebuild every time - it's a matter of stitching and sewing from what's there."
Norris says component software is becoming increasingly important, with frameworks like Microsoft WinDNA or Java J2EE available off the shelf.
"The idea of not having to do it all yourself is a big one - [using] applications with the pieces knocked out that you can fill yourself so you don't reinvent the wheel constantly. The next stage of that will be a series of components that you can buy to fill the gap."
The availability of component software enables you to get to market faster yet doesn't entirely replace the need for development, according to Cortex's Moore.
"You don't get products off the shelf that fulfil all your needs but you can improve that with components," Moore says. "If you intend to redevelop everything the components will get you to market and you can improve and redevelop each part without breaking the whole thing. That's the promise as it becomes more widely accessible and things like Java get faster."
The rise of wireless application protocol (WAP) and non-PC Internet devices means Web development will become more challenging, according to Stockton.
"We're starting to have customers very interested in WAP and SMS. The types of devices you need to cater for within the same application vary widely. At the moment, 90 per cent are PCs with Web browsers but in the not-too-distant future it will be multiple user interfaces and types of clients. That will place pressure on the tool providers.
Web development tools offer great potential and substantial reseller opportunities, yet despite the hype there is still a clear need for the consulting services of Web developers and integrators. "Some vendors would have you believe that their tool answers all ills," says Cortex's Moore. "That's never true and by definition cannot be true."