Building a Foundation for the Virtual Enterprise

The true virtual company is still a concept, but it's moving closer to reality.

Remember the virtual corporation? As I recall, that was the company where most of the services were contracted, and the physical part of the company was limited. I had the image of a company consisting of one person, the president, sitting at a terminal. The virtual idea proved a bit ahead of its time, but evidence is pointing to continued progress.

According to Jamie Lewis, CEO of the Burton Group research organization, the virtual enterprise is still "in an emerging state." The Burton Group originally made its way by being a source of deep technical dives into topics such as directory structures and identity management. I was at its Catalyst conference July 21 in San Diego, and while the technical aspects live on, the discussion is more and more about how to build business organizations around technologies such as emerging service-oriented architectures. While Lewis predicted that a lot of the discussion around virtual enterprises wont develop into technology infrastructures until 2007 and wont fully emerge until 2010, I think he is on the long side of the real growth.

Instead of sitting through one more slide show at the San Diego Marriott, I decided to visit some technology companies in the area to see how far along they are in helping the virtual corporation become a reality. Id better define first what I see as the virtual company. At the ideal level, it would be a company whose operations are seamlessly, transparently and immediately available to one another and, based on security and authority, are available to customers and suppliers. Thats the ideal, and its still a bit far from reality, but its not as far as some would think.

First stop was the newly renamed Linspire. Linspire was Lindows until a lawsuit settlement with Microsoft gave a financial and judicial reason to change the companys name. I met with company CTO Tom Welch, who took me on a guided tour of Linspires CNR (click and run) Warehouse. Welch couldnt talk much about futures, as the company is on the financial road show cycle. Virtual companies, particularly those with strong consumer offerings, will define themselves by the services they offer customers via the unified platforms of voice, video and the Web. In the software world of new applications, versions and continuing security issues, Linspires CNR sets a new standard for ease of use and customer friendliness. Bill Gates should spend a little time in the CNR Warehouse if he wants to see how software will be marketed and delivered by the truly virtual company.

Next stop was Websense, where Leo Cole, vice president of marketing, was the tour guide for the companys subscription-based Internet management offerings. Security risks, legal liabilities, bandwidth misuse and productivity considerations are all teaming up to make it necessary for companies to get a handle on their Internet connections and employee Internet activities. What was always missing was an easy way to manage all those activities, discover problems and act in time to head off more trouble.

What Linspire has done with CNR for software application downloads, Websense has done for Internet management. The ability to see usage, highlight trouble areas and take action will mean the difference for customers in avoiding the latest virus or legal tussle and for those that find their systems broken and abused. In the virtual corporation, security of the virtual network will be the first priority, and companies such as Websense will provide that underpinning.

My final stop was Qualcomm for a quick update on the Ev-DO wireless network. Of course, the virtual corporation will have to be a mix of wired and unwired connections that are always on, always available and reasonably priced. The wireless solutions in the past have been frequently on, sometimes available, and a bit overpriced for the service and speed delivered. The Ev-DO networks now being built by telecom carriers using Qualcomm chips are going to change the equation. Think about having the speed of a cable modem available wirelessly on your laptop.

/zimages/5/28571.gifSprint recently announced that it will spend $1 billion to upgrade to an Ev-DO network. Click here for the full story.

While the true, complete virtual corporation might not be available for a few years, a lot of the pieces are available today.

Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at