Server enables offline access for Web apps

Offline specialist BackWeb Technologies Ltd. next week is expected to announce a retooled and renamed version of its flagship software for making Web applications available to disconnected remote and mobile workers.

BackWeb’s Offline Access Server is designed to let companies offline-enable any Web application simply by tagging specific Hypertext Markup Language pages, forms and documents for delivery. No application rewrite is required, says BackWeb Chief Executive Officer Eli Barkat.

The product’s successor, ProactivePortal Server, focused on Web-enabling portals and intranets. The new product extends the tools to Web-based business applications, such as customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, created with standard Java components or in a .Net framework.

The decision to move beyond portals makes sense, analysts say. BackWeb is betting that enterprise portals won’t wipe out all other Web interfaces in corporations – and the company is right, says Nate Root, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

While portals, in theory, provide one central user interface with access to all of a firm’s content, applications and processes, “the reality is never so neat and clean,” Root says. “Portals take time to develop, firms merge, IT constantly buys new software – all of these regular business events create an ongoing need for stand-alone Web and thick-client interfaces for business applications.”

The offline capabilities that some vendors build into their products often limit functionality. “Applications like CRM and ERP are notoriously hard to bring offline because they rely on such large, central data repositories,” Root says. “Without replicating the entire data store to a local device, you can’t ever create a 100 per cent fully functional offline version.”

Offline Access Server provides a consistent way to offline-enable multiple business applications, rather than maintain separate product-specific access tools, Barkat says. It includes a new, Eclipse-based development environment, called BackWeb Developer Studio, which lets Web developers build, test and deploy offline capabilities without changing the way an application works or modifying its code.

BackWeb’s synchronization technology is designed to minimize network loads. Offline Access Server automatically updates content when a user’s network connection is idle and can resume interrupted downloads at the point where they stopped. Pre-emptive download features let high-priority content bypass low-priority content.

BackWeb competes with vendors such as Covigo Inc., iOra Ltd. and Cysive Inc., which also specialize in providing mobile and offline application access.

Among the challenges BackWeb faces is its small size, although it has had some success partnering with larger vendors, says Gene Phifer, a vice-president at Gartner. For example, IBM Corp. and SAP AG resell BackWeb’s ProactivePortal Server product.

The company eventually will have to contend with the rich-client strategies of vendors such as IBM and Microsoft Corp., Phifer says.

BackWeb needs to keep an eye on Microsoft, Root agrees. Microsoft has announced broad offline synchronization capabilities due out over the next three years in its Yukon, Longhorn and Whidbey versions of its SQL Server, desktop operating system and Visual Studio.Net products. “The next-generation Windows clients and servers will have native synchronization features built in at the file-system level, so the market for vendors like BackWeb and iOra becomes less clear after 2006,” he says.