Today, many firms can't function without document management software to keep up with this fast-paced environment and to interact with the databases of clients and suppliers.

Have you noticed we're moving away from stand-alone applications, documents, and users and toward universally accepted file formats, shared documents, and real time collaboration? We used to keep documents in separate files that were easy to organize and retrieve. But today, document management software is becoming a necessity for many firms. And many documents exist only when a database produces them in response to a query.

Database proliferation. One way to tie shards of information together is to abandon the document development and storage mode entirely. The alternative is storing information in a database and then generating documents based on the information you need. Wal-Mart surpassed Sears and other retailers by using databases to manage inventory. This made Sam Walton the wealthiest man in the world. Bill Gates, using SAP's database-centric software to run Microsoft, passed Walton. And just this year, Larry Ellison's Oracle Corporation (which does nothing but databases) shot past Microsoft to be the most capitalized corporation in the world.

Databases form the backbone of today's software for accounting, project management, CAD work, e-commerce, and more. And to thrive in today's fast-paced business environment, you must involve database-savvy people in your business. Not only will you need such expertise to stay cost-competitive, but also you will need to interact with the databases of clients and suppliers.

Webcentricity. Four years ago, companies were putting "brochureware" on the Web. A year later, they improved the content on their static HTML pages. Then, they started using dynamic forms and dabbling in e-commerce. This was part of a trend that involves infrastructure, database-driven Web applications, and increasing Web-dependency. Yesterday, clients wanted your phone number from your Web site. Today, clients want to interact with your Web site. Tomorrow, clients will want to conduct almost any business online.

A negative consequence of Webcentricity is commodization. Find ways to differentiate yourself as value-added - even if you're a commodity-oriented company. That means finding ways to please your clients - off-line and online. End-to-end business integration (including field service operations and customer care) is becoming the norm.

Outsourced software. Application Service Providers (ASPs) - and there are now more than 500 of them - maintain software on their servers, so their clients use it over the Internet. One example is online permit processing. If you've applied for municipal construction permits - especially as an "out of towner" - you can appreciate this. One such ASP has a database of more than 1000 cities. You can get detailed information about ASPs at www.searchasp.com.

Be aware, however, that an ASP limits your system to the speed of your Internet connection, regardless of how fast your local machine (PC, PDA, laptop, handheld) runs. Your laptop, which can run a billion instructions per second, would access software over a 56k connection capable of only 1750 instructions per second. Thus, ASPs don't always make sense.

However, Internet connections are speeding up. Wireless will soon run at 144 kb/sec. Cable modems deliver an amazing 100 Mb/sec for about $40 a month. Corporations can get 600 Mb lines, internal networks can deliver 1GB/sec over Cat 5e, and faster access is coming.

Information integration. Companies constantly strive to reduce the cost of their business processes. One way to do this is by eliminating steps - and paper-based processes are prime targets. When your database talks to a vendor's database, you eliminate the cost of handling paper invoices. You fill out a Web-based form or your program interacts directly with theirs, integrating your information system with theirs.

You'll need to move beyond stand-alone applications designed to produce paper reports and to applications that integrate with "enterprise software." A weakness here is the existence of legacy information systems, which present problems only interposing software can cure.

Overcoming obstacles. Information systems are major investments of capital and labor. However, legacy systems pose a problem. Many companies can't read each other's files. You send a bid or invoice electronically, and your customer prints it out and enters it into its system manually. Then, the company sends you everything on paper, raising your costs. The Web alleviates this platform incompatibility without requiring replacement of existing systems. This fuels Webcentricity.

Suppose a company's legacy system can't use an "off the shelf" program such as enterprise-wide project management. Or their systems can't talk with other systems. That's where Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) software comes in.

Previously, matching old to new required maybe $100,000 of hand coding. Now, EAI software pulls information from the applications and sends it to a server that acts as an information broker so all the applications can share data.

This trend affects you in two ways. First, it may alleviate your need to upgrade your own information systems if your customers have legacy systems. Second, it allows you access to customers whose proprietary information technologies are incompatible with yours. This gives you opportunities you didn't have before.

What are these software trends pointing to? You're going to see a streamlining of application software, so you can access customer information from your handheld device - which will be much less cumbersome than today's laptop and will have instant Internet access. E-mail and voice will converge. The new Mac OSX is a derivative of BSD, which is the brains of many an e-commerce server. The one thing you can count on in years to come is change - and in no small quantity.

Sidebar: Feature Richness Requires Resources

When you add workgroup features, Web connectivity, Open Database Compatibility (ODBC), advanced text editors, file conversion utilities, and other complex features, you add millions of lines of code. Software is driving hardware. So if you want the advantages of today's software, you need today's hardware.

You need more RAM to run all those lines of code without continually accessing your hard drives (which run about 1000 superscript th as fast as RAM). Yesterday's 128 MB machine is giving way to the 256 MB machine, while CAD stations often exceed 512 MB of RAM. A decade ago, you couldn't find a hard drive that size. Today, you can't find a hard drive that size either, but only because it's been obsolete since 1995. This summer, the 75 GB drive appeared in new computers.