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Site for sore eyes

Clients want their Web sites to engage their visitors; they're not concerned with how this is achieved.

Read time 4min 20sec

I was walking around a small-company hub the other day and I noticed that many of the firms were Web development agencies. Stopping to read some of the banners in their windows, I noticed they all said exactly the same kind of things: “Latest technologies”, “innovation”, “open source based solutions”. In fact, you could have swapped all their banners around between the companies and you'd never have known the difference.

The Web development agency of tomorrow is going to be a consultancy first and a development shop second.

Dan Matthews is a technical architect at EPiServer South Africa.

This is a phenomenon I've noticed a lot in South Africa, where there is an abundance of technology-focused Web development agencies all fighting for low-end work with small revenue based on open source.

They all claim exactly the same things and it's pretty much the luck of the draw which gets picked by a client for any particular project. I'm sure there's profit to be made there at the moment, but as companies in South Africa look to be more strategic with their Web sites, that huge pool of small agencies is soon going to find themselves fighting over less and less available work.

Change of focus

For those Web development agencies with vision and initiative, now would be the best time to start moving from a technology focus to a strategic focus. Clients are asking the questions of 'what', 'why' and 'when' and couldn't really care less about the 'how'.

They no longer want to hear about how their new Web site is going to be implemented on the LAMP stack or the .Net framework, and arguably they never did in the past either. What they want to hear now is how the Web site is going to engage their visitors. What they want to hear is about how their visitors' desires are going to be met and how their visitors' goals are going to be achieved. The Web development agency of tomorrow is going to be a consultancy first and a development shop second. That's no bad thing. By investing time in discovery and design, the quality of the end product will be vastly improved.

This also means that the love affair with open source solution development might have to draw to a close. For a long time, open source has been riding a wave of the 'open source revolution' and 'community-based development', but ultimately these contained great promise and no substance.

That's not to say that open source as a concept is over. Far from it. The idea of collaboration is alive, kicking and very much the future. However, companies are now looking to deliver a feature-rich and engaging Web presence quickly, effectively and in a way that is scalable and maintainable. This means that taking a 'free' tool and investing huge amounts of time in modifying it and moulding it, then investing large quantities of time in maintaining it and securing it, is not a viable option. Especially when the community that built the tool spots something nicer and jumps ship, leaving the client with the tatters of a solution that no one cares about or maintains any more.

Rise to the challenge

The wisest option would be to select partnerships with established commercial software vendors with a proven track record of strategic design and delivery and a strong partner model. By linking up with these companies, a Web development agency can rise above the rest and focus on delivering solutions that meet goals rather than just provide a technology. Good commercial software can be tailored rapidly and efficiently to the needs of different clients. Many vendors also support extensive open source initiatives where the community can contribute modules and plug-ins that enhance the value of the core product. In this way, a commercial software vendor can offer the best of both worlds; a solid and supported base for a client's solution and a wealth of enhancements that can take that online presence to the next level above the competition.

Remember, clients are not impressed by zero licence cost. They are discerning enough to look at total cost of ownership of their Web presence. And when they look at that, solutions developed entirely on open source can suddenly look a whole lot less attractive.

So this is the challenge. Don't be 'just another follower of open source'. Web development companies that continue to focus on technology and put a zero licence cost before all else will gradually fade away. We've already seen this happen in Europe. Five or so years ago there were a huge number of small Web development companies building on open source Web solutions or, just as commonly, building their own. But since then there has been huge consolidation and an irreversible trend towards commercial software. It will happen here. It will happen sooner rather than later. Are we ready?

Dan Matthews
technical architect at EPiServer South Africa.

Dan Matthews is a chartered IT professional who has been involved at the cutting-edge of Web technologies in Europe for the last 15 years. A technologist with extensive experience across many disciplines, including Java, the LAMP stack and .NET/ASP, Matthews is often sought out for his ability to understand business domains and design effective enterprise-level solutions. He has been on advisory panels to Microsoft as well as being a regular contributor to open source initiatives. In his current role as technical architect at EPiServer South Africa, Matthews is responsible for pre-sales, consulting and training across the whole of Africa. He now lives in Cape Town.

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