Skip to content

Tech language changes, get over it

Hilton Chicago Elevator monitoring

This morning during a call someone used the word “portal” to describe their efforts around a social media, networking, blogging, etc. site. You know, a “community” of non-tech people. The word “portal” is an old one, and it actually has a pretty solid meaning in the business software context. It even has a pretty good, though derogatory meaning in the consumer world.

And, if you get down to it, a lot of the social application/web stuff we do can be framed as an evolution of “portals”: just a web site that you can customize to your desires (somewhat), sucking in data and processes you like (updates from friends, photos, messages to each other…hello, Facebook!).

But, as I typed out during that call:

I think the word “portal” should never occur in the same sentence as “social media/networking/etc.”

It’s frustrating

While folks tended to agree with this, I can see plenty of defense for using the word, it fits to the efforts. Nonetheless, even if what you’re offering in the social application space is essentially a portal (and I mean that in a good way), it’s good to avoid calling it a portal. That word choice speaks to exactly what users want to get away from. I don’t think very many users ever thing, “gosh, I love portals!”

James summarized the problem with the technology and, therefore, the word “portal”:

That’s right- less painful for users. Products like IBM WebSphere Portal and SAP Netweaver Portal were supposed to bring much improved user interaction models to enterprise IT, but unfortunately traditional systems-focused IT departments, rather than user interaction specialists and their web brethren, did the work. People like Josh Porter generally weren’t invited to the party. Portals were built to support IT systems and data, rather than users. Portals were part of what Adobe calls a system-centric view of the world. Portals had glue, if not concrete poured all over them.

Speaking out of both sides of your mouth

And yet, in some contexts it makes sense to call something a portal, in the context of selling to an enterprise buyer who understands exactly what “portal” means.

It’s tricky game, figuring out when a tech word is old, but you have to know what your audience is thinking when they hear it and not think you can use the same words when talking with buyers, managers, IT staff, users, and consumers. In general, the further you get from the money and the Morlocks (buyers and IT staff), the more mystical and “experience”-laden your language has to be. It’s products vs. solutions.

No one would talk about Facebook as a “portal for keeping up with your friends,” and most folks didn’t talk about blogging as a simple CMS system. “Cloud computing” isn’t virtualization, automation, and self-service – and lord knows it’s not autonomics or ITSM! – even though the underlying technologies – and IT-theory – may be exactly that.

You can’t sew a new label on old pants

It’s tempting for incumbent vendors to spot a genuinely new idea, understand it, and then get giddy when they realize they’ve been “doing this all along.” Both their marketing (how they talk about and try to sell their offerings) and their product management & strategy (how the product will change and evolve over time) are effected by this frame: you’re not inventing something new, you’re strapping new features on an existing offering. Worse, you’re just strapping on some updated PowerPoints and PDFs with little or no change to the actual technology.

When a customer is enthusiastic about a new idea, it’s because they think it’s better than what existed before. They don’t want your old ideas and technologies, they want the new thing.

Nothing against “portal,” really

I’m not really picking on the word “portal” here at all – the word and technology silo are just a good launching-off point. Indeed, when one of our clients showed us an interesting portal related offering recently and wanted to call it something other than a portal, our quick feedback was pretty brusque: just call it a portal, don’t get all fancy.

People used to freak out about DHTML vs. Ajax. But let’s take a more recent one, virtualization. Several years ago, once virtualization had cemented itself as “something that matters,” many of the incumbent vendors essentially said, “we’ve been doing ‘virtualization’ for years!” It was the equivalent of King George decrying he’d been doing democracy for years, you know, because he’d take input from people, Magna Carta, and all that.

They all quickly learned, of course, and actually started up new virtualization marketing and technology efforts. But the lesson was the same: when the words change, go with it. They’re changing because people don’t like the old ones, and you’re not doing yourself a favor using disliked language.

Categories: Marketing.

Comment Feed

2 Responses

  1. You make a fine case for what was always true: “portal” was, from the day it was first spoke, anti-user, totally hoster oriented. It should never have been spoke, for just the reasons you cite, and “never” continues to include today.

    But the point does not generalize as widely as you imply. Languages certainly do evolve, for reasons good, bad, and debatable, but in our business we have way more than enough reason to evolve our language to represent new things and analyses already, without succumbing to drift merely for fashion, confusion, or obfuscation. When Tim O’Reilly coined “Web 2.0,” it coalesced a hundred concepts we’d all been thinking, and we all latched on to it for our favorite five. Tim’s right, a hero in fact, to continue to insist that the term means _something_ rather than _anything_ (which latter, of course, would mean it means _nothing_).

    Fight the good fight! Eschew obfuscation! Down with entropy!

Continuing the Discussion

  1. […] getting over their SOA romance), along came cloud and rejigged the dance card line-up. But, hey, you gotta talk the talk. Thankfully, cloud computing is looking to be as real and beneficial as virtualization, and the […]