There's an epic battle brewing between ordinary software and software as a service, commonly called SaaS. The ways in which we use computers and portable devices are changing rapidly.
Before you make another major investment in any software application, you must obtain a basic understanding of where the software industry is headed.
The software most widely used today is monolithic. We purchase software on CDs and install it on desktops and possibly, network servers. These software applications are often big, bulky and bloated. For example, Microsoft Office 2003 takes up in the neighborhood of 400MB of disk space and provides more features and functions than anybody could ever learn or use.
Such software presents a variety of hurdles including cost of required hardware, lengthy training time, substantial maintenance activity, inherent security risks, and lack of portability. Despite these challenges, we have become addicted to this software distribution model.
An alternative model evolved in the late 90's offered by vendors that called themselves Application Service Providers (ASP). An ASP is a business that provides access to software over a network. The software is usually a specialized application program such as the customer relationship management solution offered by SalesForce.com.
The ASP approach leaps some of the hurdles presented by ordinary software. For example, hardware and maintenance costs can be reduced. The training, security and portability issues remain, however.
The newest model and the one destined to change our thinking is SaaS. The trend is toward smaller, lightweight, applications that can be run on the desktop and on portable devices.
SaaS applications run within a browser. This makes them platform independent, provides anywhere/anytime access and eliminates installation issues. Very little training is needed because the software is lean. While security remains an issue, it is narrower in scope and more easily managed.
The first company to widely leverage SaaS and AJAX is Google - within their Google Maps website. If you've never tried Google Maps, go to maps.google.com. Click and hold the mouse button while you drag the map around. AJAX makes this possible.
So what is AJAX and what makes it so significant?
The key advantage of both technologies is their inherent simplicity. They are easy to learn, easy to deploy and easy to maintain. These characteristics attract a wealth of software talent interested in exploiting the power and elegance of AJAX.
Several other attempts have been made at making the Internet more dynamic and interactive. Microsoft tried using ActiveX, .Net and C#. None of these provide the simplicity of AJAX. They each require installation of many megabytes of desktop software to operate.
In addition, the learning curve for software developers is long and steep.
Another alternative is Flash developed by Macromedia and now owned by Adobe. Flash has developed a following among advertisers who use it to create dynamic, and sometimes interactive, banner ads. Unfortunately, such usage has given Flash a bad reputation among mainstream software developers who don't want to be associated with the advertising business.
The issue of offline usage of the software remains open with any of these approaches. There are ways to provide at least partial functionality when Internet access is unavailable but there are trade-offs that lead us back to the disadvantages of ordinary software.
The trend is clearly toward universal connectivity. Mobile phones, personal digital assistants, laptop computers, and even MP3 players can provide 24x7 access to the Internet. Connectivity is becoming less of an issue. The focus is shifting to application size and simplicity.
If you'd like to sample a few applications built using AJAX, take a look at the following:
Backpack (personal information manager)
Basecamp (project manager)
Microsoft Live (general purpose portal)
Will ordinary software as we know it disappear? Not anytime soon. Too many companies have too much invested in ordinary software to let it die. They will staunchly defend their installed bases by lowering prices, simplifying usage and enriching user experiences. We will all benefit.
In the end, the AJAX approach must deliver universal access, a rich user experience, secure execution, and ease of software development. For many business people, simplicity, connectivity and collaboration are more important than having hundreds of incomprehensible features available within the software.
The battle lines have been redrawn. AJAX is a revolution that proves browsers can offer unparalleled reach and application richness using any computing device.
Vin D'Amico is Founder and President of DAMICON, your ADJUNCT CIO. He is an expert in IT Business Continuity Planning, Network Security Policies, and Freelance Writing focused on white papers, case studies, and handbooks. DAMICON services firms worldwide.
This article appeared in Vin's monthly Virtual Business column for the IndUS Business Journal in February 2006.
To learn more about how DAMICON can help your business, please take a look at our service programs.
This column appears monthly in the IndUS Business Journal.