July 7, 2008
This is a guest post from BeeBuzz, the voice of BeeBole.
Every morning when I stop reading the last big news from about 30 blogs in Netvibes and switch to my countless SaaS Business Apps such as Gmail, Basecamp, Highrise, Remember The Milk, Google Docs, … I wonder why aggregation of information like news was present so fast in my day to day life and why Business Apps, when it comes to integration, are still in the stone age.
If I had to define the perfect Business Application, it would certainly be user-centric:
- I would have a single interface where I could find all my information and processes;
- The interface would be flexible. It would allow me to rearrange it the way I want: fitting my working habits and my organization of information;
- And finally, it would only include the features I need and for which I would eventually pay.
Even with such powers in my hands, I would still expect quite a lot from the software provider: security, maintenance, performance, scalability and innovation.
There are obvious barriers to reach that point.
First, I doubt we will ever have some kind of a single universal DB with information about persons, friends, contacts, habits, projects, … They will probably continue to multiply and spread as new web solutions will appear.
Secondly, I doubt a single provider will ever meet all my needs. Moreover, I believe innovation comes from diversity.
So, looking at how SaaS providers are responding to this demand, we can find:
1) The me-only providers. They often provide a wonderful tool for a specific domain but are not integrated with others.
2) The API players. They believe in information aggregation and easily pass the barrier of the constantly multiplying and spreading sources of information.
Centralized and external data is combined not only to avoid redundancy for the users, but also to provide better and more complete results.
- Sinclair Schuller on the benefit of merging local data acquisition with SaaS.
- Ben Kepes with a post on FreeAgentCentral.
API followers would usually also provide API for their own data.
3) The SaaS Platforms. This new feature in the SaaS industry is more than probably going to be the battlefield in the in the coming months and years (McKinsey: Emerging platforms war in enterprise software).
Taking the same naming convention than McKinsey, Development Platforms and Application-led Platforms are good candidates to help the user pass the second barrier.
Providing a single interface for the users and elaborated systems for developers, this might be the solution we are looking at.
It is definitively one step further in the direction of a user-centric approach. Still, there are in my opinion certain downsides you need to consider:
First, the lock-in it creates for developers. When you choose a platform, you basically choose for a complete environment from A to Z at the disadvantage of complete freedom in innovation and technical choices.
Secondly, the real possibilities for the end users are still quite limited in terms of interface customization and flexibility.
4) True Aggregation in SaaS or the Browser as a Platform. The idea is to be able to empower the end-users and at the same time to leverage providers’ efforts and innovation without creating any lock-in.
While running their business applications through a web browser, the users can customize their screens adding or removing services offered by various providers.
Using the buzz semantic, these users are in fact running SaaS applications through a Mashup interface based on SOA architecture.
I recommend the excellent post about Enterprise Mashups written by Brian ‘Bex’ Huff.
Mashups are usually packaged by developers or Mashup specialists. But, just like Netvibes did for the RSS feeds, you could let them be created by users.
The real challenge for the software providers will then be to rethink applications in smaller blocks that could work independently AND in collaboration with other unknown services.
So we are finally seeing a move into federation in SaaS Business Applications. Aggregation of information and aggregation of features should be on the mind of everybody who plans to start a new SaaS venture.
While all-in-one heavyweight platforms such as those offered by Salesforce provide a certain comfort, I strongly believe that innovation is about freedom of choices and diversity; and it’s something that can only be achieved by embracing that diversity and not by creating lock-ins.
Last but not least, there is a last barrier that might be bigger than the two others mentioned above: the will of providers to work together and share the love!