Unisys Debuts Its Portal-Hosting Prowess

Unisys Debuts Its Portal-Hosting Prowess

Mary Ann Zaborowski

By William Welsh, Staff Writer

Unisys Corp. has established a portal-hosting program designed for local communities that eventually may alter the way local government services are delivered to citizens through the Internet.

The company announced July 11 that the borough of West Chester, Pa., and six surrounding townships would serve as the inaugural site for a new portal-hosting program that seeks to provide residents of a particular community with online access to local businesses, government agencies and organizations.

The program, known as the Community Helper Solution, is the result of extensive research showing that communities want to use technology to strengthen local ties, according to officials at Unisys in Blue Bell, Pa. This is precisely what West Chester officials hope to achieve.

"Many West Chester leaders and officials view this as a great opportunity to connect our citizens, institutions and not-for-profit organizations to provide for what is essentially a linked e-village of information and service sharing," said Ernie McNeely, borough manager of West Chester.

While the formal launch of the West Chester portal is scheduled for November, Unisys plans to offer West Chester retailers a sneak preview in August that would allow them to register in advance and receive training in electronic sales.

The advance registration is being conducted "so that we have, at the time the site goes live, a very rich portal environment," said Mary Ann Zaborowski, vice president and general manager for Unisys Community Helper program.

The West Chester portal is the first of what Unisys hopes will be many similar portals they will establish for local communities throughout the nation in the coming years. The company is conducting a feasibility study for a similar community portal in Port Angeles, Wash., and has been approached by a number of communities that are "quite anxious for this type of solution in their own local environment," Zaborowski said.

Unisys and West Chester community leaders were able to fashion the agreement after their discussion reached a momentary impasse earlier this year when the estimated cost of the project proved to be more than the borough and surrounding townships could afford.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in March that West Chester, with a total budget of $11 million, could not afford the $3.8 million Unisys wanted to charge to wire the community.

Unisys initially hoped that the borough would be able to finance a portion of the project. This would have spread more evenly the cost of the portal among local government, organizations, businesses and residents. But participating local governments could not approve funding for the project as quickly as Unisys officials hoped, McNeely said.

Despite the financial hurdles, there were never any reservations from the community about doing the project with Unisys, Zaborowski said.

As a way around the cost problem, Unisys decided to establish subscriber fees on a one-to-one basis between the company and local businesses, schools, not-for-profits and government organizations for hosted sites and e-commerce sites and sign up households as registered users, Zaborowski said.

Although Unisys' initial vision of its community solution included providing hardware to subscribers, that idea has since been abandoned.

"The service that we will be bringing to the community will have literally thousand of individual contracts for specific paid services," said Zaborowski.

In the meantime, the borough is establishing a nonprofit organization that will seek federal and state grants to help pay for e-government applications and services that can be offered on the portal, said McNeely.

The borough of West Chester and the surrounding townships are planning to use the portal for a variety of community services, ranging from payment transactions to emergency communications, McNeely said.

Although ultimately there will be a cost to the municipalities to provide the services online through the portals, the fees are expected to be "very modest," he said.

Unisys' willingness to change its approach in the West Chester pilot is a good sign, said Thomas Davies, a senior vice president with Current Analysis Inc. of Sterling, Va., a business intelligence and research firm.

"It would be extremely shortsighted for any company to have a business model and strategy that it would be unwilling to change in six or nine months from now," Davies said. "All of the lessons learned about the Internet world are that, though your vision may stay constant, you have to be extremely flexible as you learn about what works and what doesn't."

Unisys strategic partners for its Community Helper project in West Chester include Cisco Systems Inc. of San Jose, Calif., Intershop Communications Inc. of San Francisco and Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash.

Microsoft will provide portal architecture tools and database design and management, Intershop will provide e-commerce software, and Cisco will provide routers, Zaborowski said. Unisys will provide systems integration and hardware for the project.

Besides those partners, Unisys is holding discussions with several other vendors to round out the portal architecture and network infrastructure in areas that include content acquisition, network operations control and network management, she said.

Unisys is not the only company that has recognized the potential of community portals. CivicLife.com, which launched this May, is building a single-window portal solution that will foster cross-jurisdictional collaboration and fuse the civic world community by community.

"Both companies are trying to plant a flag in the e-community space," said Davies, who noted that e-government is part of the overall concept of community portals.

CivicLife.com, of Redwood City, Calif., sees too many companies focusing on government needs at the expense of community needs, said David DeRosa, vice president of marketing for CivicLife.com.

Rather than concentrating solely on government entities, the community portal strategy is to focus on the entire "civic mosaic," said DeRosa.

Like Unisys' Community Helper Solution, DeRosa said the dot-com will market primarily to users.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the community portal concept advanced by Unisys and CivicLife.com is not the ability to provide government to citizen transactions through the portal, but to preserve local economies threatened by competition on the Internet.

"What a lot of [local] governments are starting to realize now is that the power of the Internet is taking away the traditional geographic boundaries of the business world, and this is causing a serious outflow through the Internet of the local economy," said DeRosa.

The solution to this "hollowing out of local economies," as DeRosa described it, is a community portal that makes it possible to give local businesses a strong Web presence and electronic sales capability.

Although Unisys is building and managing both the front and back offices of the West Chester portal, it is exploring the idea of offering local companies an opportunity to manage the front end of any future community portals as franchise operations, said Zaborowski.

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