Browsing towards a systems nirvana

Jul 25, 2008 at 01:35 am by Staff

As I call on their office in the Sydney suburb of Bondi Junction, Les Pongrass and his general manager Shelley Hando have a problem: They can’t agree on the imagery which will promote the eagerly-awaited version 6 of their advertising system. Pongrass’s vision is of a headset-wearing newspaper advertising consultant, seated in front of a computer running fully-featured classified booking software. Except that she (and here’s the problem) isn’t in a typical office workstation environment ... she’s in the kitchen at home. Hando argues that the stereotypical image may be considered sexist, but nothing else, Pongrass suggests, quite shows the potential of his company’s latest release. Browser-based, it delivers all the client features of its predecessor – plus some more – while working on whatever equipment you may have available to browse the internet, wherever you are. No doubt there’ll be new visuals to launch the product – and its sister News Editor application – by the time delegates at the annual PANPA conference get to see them in September. And anyway, preconceptions about his 25-year-old company and its offerings are a problem to which Pongrass has become painfully accustomed: “We’re always seen as a ‘small system’ company, although we have installations as big as some of the much-publicised ones of our competitors,” he says. The “massively-scaleable” V6 could change that: With what is said to be the world’s first pure browser implementations of newspaper advertising and editorial software, the small Sydney team is delivering the features bigger systems vendors are still talking about. In total, about 1000 ‘terminals’ are involved in a Pongrass Publishing Systems editorial rollout among Rural Press regional sites which has already put the new tools in the hands of journalists working for the Fairfax Media division in Springwood, Bathurst and Tuggerah, NSW. But for the tab indicating that they’re running Explorer, Safari or whatever, you wouldn’t know it this wasn’t a ‘conventional’ client/server application. The ‘look-and-feel’ of the predecessor has been preserved, and in the case of the Rural sites, the migration has been seamless with journalists switching from one to another as required. At the Sydney Royal Easter Show, that meant using familiar features to file and edit copy, even though the equipment in use had no special software loaded and was using only a lightweight internet connection. It also means that the vision of the newsdesk operating from a wireless hotspot in a cafe or airport lounge can be a reality ... as can that of the home-based ad-taker (male or female) fielding classified orders from a kitchen using no more than a PC and an IP phone. Newspaper systems is a global business dominated by large vendors which have accumulated critical mass largely through acquisition. Most recently, net-linx has been acquired by English developer Miles 33 ... the latest episode in a story which saw it formed from bits of SII and CText. Nearer home, Bernie Grinberg’s Cybergraphic went through a couple of mergers before ending up as part of Atex, a company which has also had several owners, among them Kodak (1992) and Sysdeco (1995) and, in turn purchased Unisys in December 2006. So how has the small team of Pongrass programmers in a low-profile office suite in suburban Sydney achieved the envied switch to a browser-based architecture which emulates features of some of the giants of Web 2.0? Les Pongrass likes the analogy with Apple – the smaller, more nimble computer company able to develop elegant solutions because it’s not incumbered by its size – or the quintet of programmers who wrote code for the internet itself. “We’ve known what to turf out ... and we’ve been ready to do it,” he says. “You have to make some hard decisions sometimes.” Like Apple – nimbler under Steve Jobs’ leadership than its rival Microsoft, “run by a committee” – Pongrass has been ready to debunk its history. Its founder says often software develops in layers which are preserved because no-one can remember why they are there. “All we’ve kept from our version 5 is the ‘look and feel’ and the database. Everything else has been thrown away in one big rewrite,” he says. “The bigger vendors can’t afford to do that because of the history in the product.” The task has taken a good couple of years – with a beta version of the advertising software shown at Nexpo in Orlando last year. “Everyone’s first attempt – including our own – was to tack a web interface onto an existing system, but it can’t be done.” Inspiration for the upgrade came from the internet itself, with Pongrass struck by the ease with which browser-based applications such as Google Maps anticipated and suggested a user’s need. “I saw then that it had the capability we were looking for, and wanted to bring it to our products,” he says. Key element is a technique called AJAX (asynchronous Javascript with XML), described as the crown jewel of the Web 2.0 evolution and the source of the interactivity of applications such as Google, Flickr and Backpack. With it, data requested is retrieved from a server in background, ready to be inserted into a web page. Forms-based functions are a clear beneficiary, freed from slow and sometimes painful process. “Until then, editorial and advertising systems were all client/server based, and needed things like middleware and n-tier architecture to make them work,” Pongrass says. “Not only did this approach make things quicker and easier for users, but we’ve found that the communications load is about a twentieth of what it had been previously. “This means it can be used at home, for remote sites and in markets where the telecomms infrastructure is much more fragile.” In an application such as Rural Press, this means it can be used to provide extra functionality within an existing intranet – but without the expense of upgrading it – or via a virtual private network on the internet. “They’re a great example because they have hundreds of small newspapers which we can install quickly and efficiently,” Pongrass says. The Fairfax division was “very keen”, and their decision to roll out the company’s News Editor V6 led to development priority being given to the editorial product. First installation at the ‘Blue Mountains Gazette’ – for reporters and story allocation – has been followed by Bathurst’s ‘Western Advocate’ and the ‘Australian Senior’ in Tuggerah on the NSW Central Coast. Other potential customers have been attracted by the potential for more staff to work from home or file stories ‘on the road’. And in a market where newspapers are beginning to be less newsroom-driven, as writers work to reflect the interests of social networking site users, the browser-based solutions bring staff closer to where their readers are. With the trend to centralised database and server facilities, browser-based software offers substantial savings over current client/server architecture. “Once you have lightweight browser clients in place, it’s possible to have all the computer power in one place and distribute the clients with very low communications and IT costs,” Pongrass says. “We see this as important technology in this environment.” With the evolution from costly highly-customised systems to more standardised solutions, he says there have been some false starts with users reverting to an older system or changing vendor direction. Most of the legacy systems in use – Pongrass uses the term ‘geriatric’ more than once – are based on technology which has been around for some time, but which have had extra technologies added to make them work better. “The mistake some (vendors) are making is to put too many technologies into their products,” he says. “We believe it’s important that the core system is simple and flexible. “Originally we had wanted to develop a system which could be sold ‘shrink-wrapped’ but unfortunately customer requirements are not that simple.” The company has a history innovation, claiming the first PC workstations (Brisbane’s ‘Courier-Mail’) and first Postscript imagesetters (‘Cairns Post’) into Australian daily newspapers. A software-based Hyphen RIP was a world first and in 1990 Pongrass provided the kit which enabled WA’s ‘Geraldton Guardian’ to be Australia’s first fully-paginated newspaper. A suite of products also cover ad tracking, display booking and layout, and include plug-ins and Xtensions (called AdLoader and Pebble) to handle dummying needs. For Pongrass Publishing Systems, there’s the hope that V6 will be the rocket to fire the company to the stars. “Now we can really put the lie to that perception about not being able to handle big sites,” says Pongrass. A reputation for quick installs – an advantage in small or remote offices – has meant Pongrass often does small sites for large customers. And now there’s no special software running at the client end, commissioning is less complex, upgrades simpler, and the requirement for systems staff is also greatly reduced. Around the world, Pongrass is represented by three key distributors – Noisia in south-east Asia, Icanon in North America, and Graphic Systems International, in Latin America. In addition to representation covering Venezuela, Panama and the Dominican Republic, there are hopes for good results in Brazil, where an office has just opened. General manager Shelley Hando says she’s “pretty happy” with the results, and optimistic that the new V6 suites will increase penetration: “Deployment is going to be so much easier, especially where comms aren’t up the same level as here, if you have a product which runs at five per cent of the thick client equivalent.” She says it takes time to develop sales in a country: “After the first installation there’s usually a pause before things get going, but the results have been good. GSI are well versed in our products and have been doing clever stuff, most recently with a 50-seat classified system.” Says Pongrass: “We have customers in Fiji and New Caledonia ... anywhere there’s a palm tree, it seems ... and now we have a system which suits users of all sizes. “The technology is massively scaleable and theoretically, could handle every newspaper in the world in a single system. Nobody’s suggesting we should do that but it may bring an end to people saying that 40 seats is too much for us,” he says. gx


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