And they said 'WebOffice' couldn't be done..

And they said 'WebOffice' couldn't be done..

Summary: Everytime I write about the forthcoming fat client's fall from grace thanks to a new breed of software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers, the technologists-in-denial club shows up in the comments section of our blogs with its tar and feathers to give me a lashing.  As the comments section on a recent posting of mine shows (see Next for Sun, Google, Java: Walking papers for the fat client cartel?

TOPICS: Hardware

Everytime I write about the forthcoming fat client's fall from grace thanks to a new breed of software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers, the technologists-in-denial club shows up in the comments section of our blogs with its tar and feathers to give me a lashing.  As the comments section on a recent posting of mine shows (see Next for Sun, Google, Java: Walking papers for the fat client cartel?),  there's also a handful of forward thinkers who realize how much sense it makes to pay less or nothing at all for someone else to worry about guaranteed headaches such as software upgrades, data backup and recovery, and system maintenance (a concept that, whether you want to admit it or not, has already been proven by SaaSers such as Google, Yahoo, and 

By pay less, I don't mean just for the SaaS itself (some have argued that actually costs more than competing on-premises salesforce automation solutions over the long run).  I'm also including the TCO of that system sitting in front of you, which is more expensive to you or your company over the long run than most realize.  Not to mention the stuff that's hard to quantify.  I was reminded of that "stuff" yesterday when, in the middle of writing a blog on whether Research in Motion may have lost it's edge, my Windows XP-based Thinkpad T42, which has been behaving erratically as of late, very matter of factly switched to a blue screen with white characters that informed me that my system had experienced a catastrophic error.  Long time Windows users will recognize this as the infamous Blue Screen of Death (BSOD). 

It's been a while since a system of mine has BSODed and I'm not sure what I might have done to incur such wrath.   Here at ZDNet, our blogs are based on Wordpress -- a blogging solution that includes a browser-based blog authoring and editing utility that's little more than a Web form with a few buttons like "Save" and "Publish."  My blog entry was about halfway complete at the time and it had been about 15 minutes since I last pressed the Save button (my fault.. I was breaking the cardinal "save and save often" rule).  The shock of losing that much work turned to horror when the system would not reboot.  I immediately began to think of all the files I may have irrecoverably lost since I last backed my system up -- files like my notes from yesterday morning's interview with IBM BladeCenter VP Douglas Balog. 

After removing the battery, disconnecting the plug, getting a cup of coffee, and cursing repeatedly, the system finally booted (I think the coffee or the cursing is what did it) and before doing anything else, I backed up 8 GB of data to a USB-based external hard drive. Calculating the cost of an event like that, particularly if the system doesn't reboot (which happens too often), is like assigning a dollar figure for pain and suffering in a wrongful death civil suit.  No amount of cost-assignment can really make you feel better, motivate you to keep working, or make up for all that lost productivity.  It just doesn't work that way. 

To the extent that I lost 15 minutes of work in WordPress, the experience is a reminder of everything that's wrong with many implementations of thin-client computing.  But it also represents everything that's right.   I may have lost some of the work I was doing in WordPress.  But looking back on the hundreds of documents that I've created in that system (documents that contribute to my employer's bottom line), I didn't need a special or proprietary thick client to create them (and the thin client I could be using can't catch viruses),  they're all still there, it's not my job to keep that system going or backed up, and when the software gets updated (not by me), none of my technology gets destabilized as a result.  Meanwhile, if I had been unable to reboot my BSODed notebook, a lot would have been lost.  More than I care to think about.  I know.  Shame on me for not backing up more frequently.  But can't that be someone else's problem at no extra cost to me? 

Naysayers cite two major drawbacks in such thin client thinking.  For one, they argue, even with faux thick client technologies like AJAX, thin clients will never match even the minimum amount of functionality that most people look for in thick solutions like Office and Windows.  Tell that to the on-line word processing folks at or CRN's Edward Moltzen has the scoop on Writely, and gOffice's home page tells an interesting story with phrases like "Word Processing," "Desktop Publishing," "Import any text," "Limitless storage" (I'll bet they take care of backing it up too), "PDF document files" (thanks to PDF's openness relative to Microsoft Office XML Reference Schema), "Presentations," and "Spreadsheets" (the last two are clearly statements of intention since they're not activated yet).  Oh yeah, the upper right hand corner of's Web page says Free Web Office Suite

Mash these Web office apps up with other cloud-based services like Google's GMail for e-mailing/routing and JotSpot's Wikis for collaborating on document editing -- throw in a common document DNA like OpenDocument that they can all use for frictionless interoperation -- and things start to get interesting.  If everything (the document editing, the formatting, the storage, the e-mailing, etc.) is done out there on the Net in "the cloud" (and I'm finding that more and more of my personal computing is done this way), thick clients start to look so, well, so yesterday.  Unless of course you're doing something that requires thick clients -- like Photoshop and games.  We'll cut that group some slack.

The other major drawback cited by naysayers -- and I agree that it's a biggie -- is what to do when you're not connected to the cloud.  Lack of cloud access is problematic for two reasons and can occur in a variety of situations. Reason No. 1 is that if all your data is on the Net and you can't get to the Net, then you can't get to your data.  Reason  No. 2 is that if you can't get to your data, then you probably can't get to the services you were using to create, edit and route that data.  You can cut yourself off from the cloud in several ways.  You can get on an airplane.  Or, you can leave the coverage zone of your WiFi and/or wireless broadband services.  Your wireless or wireline services can suffer outages.  While coverage is improving (geographically expanding while also getting more reliable), that's simply not good enough for those of us who, when we're not connected, we're not working. 

This problem will be solved.  I don't know how.  But picture a world where, instead of carrying a notebook computer with you everywhere you go, and instead of having power-drinking desktops in every corner of your house, all you have is a USB key that you take from one dirt cheap thin client to another.  On that key is not just all of your personal data (that is stored in the cloud but replicated to your USB key for offline usage), but perhaps a small Web server and some applications, both of which are thin-client friendly.  Some stuff for authentication too.  Everything's encrypted.

There are implications in terms of what thin client technology you'll find in the seatbacks of planes and trains or where ever you may find yourself cut off from the cloud.  They'll need USB ports and they'll have to know what to do when a USB key is inserted into them.  Perhaps these terminals will all have runtimes for Java and Flash and all you'll need on your USB key are applications -- word processing or otherwise -- that are written for those runtimes.  Or maybe the runtimes are on the USB key itself -- in the same way that there's a tiny Java Virtual Machine on JavaCards. And maybe the USB key has an SD slot and it's the SD card that has everything on it. If you want, you can pop that SD card out of the USB key and into the SD I/O slot on your PDA. 

We're closer than you think to a world where a lot of this gets worked out.  And clearly, there are some forward thinkers who see it coming and who are positioning themselves to be players in the new world order.  Still not convinced?  Just read the already infamous Bill-Ray memos.  With most of its eggs in the thick client basket, Microsoft is clearly worried.  So much so that four days after Microsoft CTO Ray Ozzie started marshaling Microsoft's forces with his Oct 28 Internet Services Disruption memo, he and Bill Gates were on stage sketching out part of the vision.  Translation: You worker bees get busy ASAP while we make a few acquisitions and announcements that should keep customers and investors from getting spooked. In Web 1.0, Microsoft saw this movie once already.  So, it knows the drill.   But that doesn't change the reality that's only a few breakthroughs away.

Topic: Hardware

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  • Supposedly Microsoft....

    Supposedly Microsoft has also linux versions of some of their software (Office, SQL) running in their labs, there is just no incentive of releasing this (yet) since they want to sell their OS but when more people switch to linux I am sure they will come out with it
    • Since it already runs on BSD, no surprise

      Mac Office is basically running on BSD.
  • I think George Ou said it best


    there is no way in hell that i am going to put all my apps and data into the cloud i think somethings are ok on this model as a convenience such as email works ok and is handy but office? come on if i buy office 2003 i can still use it and not upgrade to office 12. but if i use office live forget it you are getting the upgrade of you want it or not
    Power User
    • well I use amazon, ebay, internet banking, internet mail, internet shopping

      as I, and millions of others trust our money to these online services, why not trust our documents?
      After all, a lot of documents were letters, now largely replaced with email.
      If I could author documents using a logical interace, say a book and chapters and so on, using GMail, and get a PDF out, I could storea giant amount of documentation in the GMail 2 gig account.
      Same with spreadsheet type data. Especially if internally Gmail used an XMLDiff tool, (and binary XML) to only store differences between file versions.
    • George may have said it, but it doen't make him right

      Just because your app is on the cloud does not mean your data is as well. I just signed up for the free version of ThinkFree (.com). It was an incredible experience that allowed the use of word processing, spread sheet, and presentation software that all looked like I was using MS Office! And what was even better, I did not have to save my files "to the cloud". I saved my files to my local system and server. They do offer 30MB if I want to save to the cloud.
      This seems truely amazing to me as the applications were fast. With the ability to save files to what ever I wanted, (local, network, USB, cloud, my own web server) realy makes me wonder what MS has to offer any more.
      I will be working on setting up a laptop with DSL or Puppy Linux, connected to these hosted services. Full office productivity for pretty much the cost of a used laptop and no MS service fee in sight.
  • Upgrades/patches - accountability?

    I'm going to reveal a dirty little secret of the computing services industry. They deliberately fail. I used to work for a F500 company that delivered services on a global basis. Ready for the business model? It goes like so:

    * Sign an agreement with the customer at a rock bottom price, and promise the same SLA as your competitors.

    * For the first few months of the contract, devote an overwhelming amount of resources towards supporting and delighting that customer, at the expense of your other customers.

    * After the first few months, under support the customer, as you do all of your customers, because otherwise you won't make a profit.

    * When the customer complains, or contract renewal is near, devote an overwhelming amount of resources towards supporting and delighting that customer, at the expense of your other customers.

    Yes, this was for on-site and call-center support. But how does this apply to software-as-a-service? In a VERY scary way! Let's re-write that previous script a little bit...

    * Promise the customer that your servers will be fully patched, backed up regularly, help-desk support will be awesome, and the software will be up to date, and give them a great price too.

    * For the first few months of the contract, users in that contract get sent to your biggest, best servers that get the most attention. Older customers get diverted to older servers, or servers that aren't so hot. Those older servers get serviced last when new patches or software comes out. For those older customers, let's try following the "gym membership" model when it comes to RAM and disk space... sure, we've sold 10GB storage per user, times 2,000 users, but why actually have that much when each user only is using 2.5GB on average? Etc. While we're at it, let's set up our routers to give the new customer 50% of our available bandwidth, and the other 50% get divided between our other 10 major clients. Support calls from that client get routed as "high priority" and some help-desk agents are only taking that one customer's calls, to reduce the average speed of answer.

    * After a few months of making the new customer happy, divert them to the older/slower servers, strip away the bandwidth, etc. Help desk calls are dumped back into the general queue. Bandwidth is decreased to normal levels. The new customer is now receiving poorer service until they complain or until they are up for contract renewal.

    Don't even pretend this isn't what happens, because I used to see it happen every single day. Remote NOC work, help-desk calls, on-site maintenance. It's not just one company that does this either. IBM, HP/Compaq, Dell, Cisco, NCR, etc. Heck, half of them subcontract it to someone else, so you're paying big bucks for a particular company's reputation and really another company is doing the work.

    Here's my final question:

    How is it possible for a third party to provide a software service so incredibly cheaply that they can charge you less money than you would have spent on doing it yourself, and still make enough profit to make it worth doing? Either there are some phenomenal economics of scale happening, or they are cutting corners.

    Economics of scale? Hmmm. My experience has been that economics of scale drop off past a certain point with this stuff. Margins on hardware are already razor-thin, Dell or HP or whoever isn't going to offer such a huge discount to a SaaS vendor on servers, storage, switches, etc. that it's going to make it much cheaper to have 500 servers versus 10. Microsoft does not offer huge discounts on licenses. Backup tapes are pricey no matter who you are. Bandwidth, sure, it's cheaper per bps to get an OC3 than a ton of T1s, there's some E.o.S. there, I'll grant that. The only time you're going to see real economics of scale is in labor. In other words, is it as cheap for you to maintain 500 servers as it is to maintain 10?

    Cuting corners? My experience has been that this is how it's done.

    One last point here (I know, I said the last one would be the last).

    If your SaaS vendor is not meeting SLA, what do you do about it? If they deliberately understaff the help desk, so that 80% of calls get answered within the contractually obligated 90 seconds, but during the heaviest periods the average speed of answer is 10 minutes (I have been somewhere where they laid people off the help desk because they were exceeding contractual obligations, the help desks learned to never beat contract by more than 5%!) you're in trouble. What do you do? Where do you go? If the vendor's bandwidth to you was NOT contractually obligated, or you need more bandwidth, guess what? You're over a barrel!

    I've been at places where we let someone else manage our network. The result was that when we went down, if they didn't pick up the phone, we were SOL. I've been at places where we let a 3rd party vendor handle our email and web hosting. When they went down, and they didn't pick up the phone, we were SOL. Heck, I remember when that web host went down, and we were then informed that the "nightly backups" we were paying for were not performed as contractually promised... what recourse did we have? None, outside a court of law. That would take so many YEARS to resolve, meanwhile our data is lost TODAY.

    I don't trust a third party to manage my network. I don't trust a third party to store my data. I don't trust a third party to maintain anything. Third parties will lie cheat and steal the moment you turn your back. They talk about how they have all of this experience and this and that, but at the end of the day I guarantee that you are being lied to. Their "Cisco certified network engineers" are high school grads halfway through junior college making $15 an hour. Their "MCSE"'s list "Geek Squad" as their most recent resume experience (no dis to Geek Sqaud, but re-installing XP 10 times a day is a heck of a lot less intense than what MCSE's supposedly do). Their "Unix gurus" are a couple of crusty old-timers who used SunOS 2.6 back in 1995. The third-party vendor is ALWAYS a black box, where you don't know what's happening inside of it. All you know is that you put your dollars in and (hopefully) get service back. If there's a foulup there is no accountability. You rely upon them to proactively maintain and prevent problems. When you ask them if they are being "proactive", they always say they are. At worst, they are lying to you, they screw up and go under, and you lose everything. At best, you end up saving some bucks and some headaches, but get to stay awake each night wondering what is really happening with your data.

    Justin James
    • Bravo!

      The real world does disillusion, does it not?!
      Anton Philidor
    • Excellent post but you forgot an issue. PRIVACY

      Hey, you wanna discuss whatever in a blog fine, it makes sense I guess. But a great deal of what I work on is confidencial and private. Two words that have meaning over the internet or on a server that gets hacked.

      And plaese don't try to pretend the servers aren't getting hacked, it happens everyday. Anyone care to purchase 32,000 names, SSN's, and bank account information???
      • Thanks for reminding me!

        No_Ax, thanks! I totally forgot about this one. Here's another privacy issue related to third party vendors...

        Since we know just how honest and open third party vendors are with their customers <wink wink> as I discussed previously, I'm sure that if someone there did something naughty that they'd immediately alert their customers. Here are some great examples of things that could happen with a third party vendor that I'm sure they would tell their customers if it ever happened:

        * A remote NOC for a bank has a disgruntled employee. On his last day at work, he runs a quickie batch script that tears through the database of their customers' network devices, adding in a new IP address for the "allow to manage" system, then sits at home running debug tools on the routers, capturing the packets, and analysing ATM transactions, end-of-day processing, and other data transmissions at his leisure.

        * A disgruntled employee says to himself, "gee, I bet these people use the same passwords for this system that they do on Amazon and eBay!" In his spare time, he runs some code to hack people's passwords on their system, then proceeds to try out the passwords to make some purchases or otherwise detroy someone's life.

        * A third party vendor decides to hire someone, and in the interests of saving money, they do not perform a background check, despite the contract requiring one. The TPV accidentally hires a Kevin Mitnick. Film at 11.

        * A third party vendor's storage system for one customer gets wiped by accident. While loading the data from tape, someone clicks on the wrong option, and also puts the data from another customer into the database. The customer now has full access to another company's data, maybe even a competitor. Hope that wasn't the prospective customer list, legal documents, or medical records!

        At the end of the day, when you hire a TPV, or even have a lot of data shuffling back and forth over the wire, you are EXPOSED. With the TPV route, you lose control over the people that are being hired and the processes used, and to make it worse, you don't even know that the contract is being broken until the thing that you are trying to prevent happens. When I worked for a major services outfit, we were regularly instructed to LIE TO THE CUSTOMER AND END USERS about the following items (not the whole list, either):

        * The number of people working on the shift
        * Our current workload
        * The fact that we were servicing other customers (on contracts where it was specified that a certain number of people were dedicated to one customer)
        * Who we were employed by
        * Our qualifications to hold the position (usually things like certifications)
        * What country we had offices in
        * What country certain tasks were performed in
        * Our positions within the company (I often was a "team lead", "manager", "lead agent", "supervisor", and so forth, despite the fact that I was at the same level as everyone else)
        * ETAs, current inventory, and locations of parts and technicians
        * Whether or not we were subcontracting work to a TPV of our own
        * Reasons for delay or otherwise not meeting contractual obligations
        * The weather conditions at a remote site
        * The amount of training we had been given, as well as the qualifications of the instructors

        Do I REALLY need to go on? These are just a fraction of the things that a TPV will lie to you. Some of these can get you into big confidentiality/privacy problems. Let's say that the contract mandates that all systems engineers have completed a training program in network security, but the vendor cheats and doesn't put the SEs through the course. The server gets hacked in a way that the course taught how to prevent. Now the vendor lies about the attack, if they tell you at all. Your data is floating around somewhere because of something that the contract very specifically was written to prevent, and now you may be in violation of any number of laws. Hope you got assumption of liability in the contract my friend.

        Here's another good one. Someone doesn't set the permissions properly on a particular directory. Customer A now is able to access Customer B's data. The TPV sees this and quietly corrects it. Customer B doesn't say a word, of course, and neither does the TPV, but Customer A can't figure out why sales reps from Customer B have already closed deals with all of their prospective clients.

        I mean, c'mon folks! Do you really want to have your data on the same drive or SAN or even backup tapes as other customers? Unless they dedicate (not just in the contract, but in reality) an entire staff and hardware and network to you, let you do the training and screen the employees and everything else, you have no way of knowing that your data security standards are being met! And at that point, not only is there no economics of scale left for the vendor, but you're now spending money to oversee the contract, on top of paying for a contract where the vendor's costs are equal to what your costs would have been.

        One final shot, before I head to sleep: when I worked for a TPV, we found out from the customer's people that we were replacing that they were getting paid THREE TIMES what we were. Why do you think that was? I'll give you a hint: they only people that the TPV hired who had close to the qualifications as the customer's people, were folks who had been unemployed for a while. They all left as soon as they could. The other employees, after gaining the experience at the TPV, then left for better jobs as well.

        Companies that offshore programming work are seeing this exact same pattern of problems. When is ZDNet, particularly Mr. Berlind, going to learn that SaaS is no different from offshoring your work? A lot of companies who jumped onto the TPV and/or offshoring crazes of the last few years are now bringing stuff back in-house, for good reasons. Are these companies going to turn around and do the same thing with their software? I think not. And I can't blame them

        Justin James
    • JMJames -- drop me a line

      You sir, need a blog of your own! Please drop me a line.

      Stephen Howard-Sarin
      VP, ZDNet & TR
      Stephen Howard-Sarin
    • Increrdible post that makes a lot of sense too. One thing to add.

      At the end of this contract, when you have finally had enough, what do you do? No matter what direction you decide to go, you will need to get your hands on all of your data. If you think that wouldn't be an issue, just think of the web world. When a new client wants me to host or otherwise take over their site, the guy they are dropping will do almost anything to not give up the clients files or give up control over the domain registration. Sometimes, it gets pretty ugly too. So if get's ugly in the SaaS world, you could have some serious downtime.
      IT Scion
    • Message has been deleted.

      IT Scion
      • Sry for the repeat. Tech problems.

        IT Scion
      • I should have fleshed that point out better, thanks!

        I vaguely alluded to that when I mentioned that the TPV has you over a barrel. Thanks for bringing that point out more though. And it's actually worse than the web host scenario. With a web hosting problem, I've created the content locally and uploaded it to their servers. I have FTP access to their servers. Even if I'm sticking data into their database, I can write a quick CGI or PHP or Java or .Net or whatever program that will dump the data out in a delimited format to get my data back. Most importantly, unless the host is using some homegrown system, my data is in a standard format that I can take to any other hosting company. With SaaS, I simply cannot do that. Unless, of course, the provider is using an off-the-shelf package, which would make me scratch my head and say "gee, why am I paying a monthly fee to use an open source piece of software, or something that I only need to buy once?"

        Justin James
    • I can second that...

      And don't forget being perpetually understaffed (labor is expensive!) and running constant fire drills. Everyone was shooting from the hip and it was so exciting (bleh). No one was accountable inside (no real mgmt) and everyone was always chasing the latest PO.

      But, yes, you are right. Everybody talked a good game (lies!), but you didn't want to come to the sausage factory.
    • Raw, ugly, but so much truth


      Being in the IT business I'm in, I hate to admit that everything you say is right. The only thing I might add is that there are some very good people in outsourcing organizations; the problem is that they're spread extremely thin. They bring in the IT stars to impress the CIO and get the contract, but they're replaced (freed up for other clients being chased after) with no-nothing newbs the minute the contract is signed.
    • Excellent post.

      Bottom line: you loose all control in SaaS scenario. Some may feel that contracting out all responsibility is worth the loss of control, but like you, I am very sceptical. In response to worst-case scenarios, all the pundits will say "That won't happen" and guess what--it certainly will.
    • I agree with regard to some ....... but

      I guess I am looking at this from a totally different view. I am looking at the technology part of it. If you do not want to outsource it, then don't. BUT - the technology of being able to have many different employees adding to and working on the same document at the same time is a TREMENDOUS advantage. Being able to carry the credentials required to log into this system around on your keychain in the form of a USB portable disk is awesome. Walk into a WiFi, plug in your USB thumb drive and away you go (on a very thin client).

      I agree that outsourcing and/or purchasing these capabilities from a third party raises some real problems. I have a customer who chose an ASP to host his applications. He paid over $150,000.00 for this software and most of what you said is correct. The sales people promised several things that did not turn out quite like they were originally perceived. For example, the sales people said they could integrate their system with my clients existing system (and made it sound like it was not a problem). But, (after the contract was signed) my client was told that it would cost an extra XX thousand $$$ and the programmers were too busy to get to it for a couple of years. And now that my client is getting fed up with the delivery of these perceived promises, this company is telling him it will cost more than $100,000.00 more for him to get his data.

      But I still maintain that the technology for doing this is a TOTALLY different issue from whether or not you purchase this technology from a third party. The technology and concepts are POWERFULL and can be a huge asset in many corporate settings.
    • Just like the "new [] economy" ...

      One of the best posts on these boards--ever. Thanks for engaging the brain while making a post.

      One small comment is all I can muster: this new "paradigm" of computing, i.e., "web services as software" reminds me of the dot-com "new economy" that lost billions for millions of folks. Because someting is technologically possible does not make it profitable (fiscally nor productively). Until the globalists turn the last one of us into mindless zombies and abolish all notions of sovereignty and privacy, the "people factor" will always be the decisive factor as to how the market turns. Technology must meet two things: 1) needs, and perhaps more importantly, 2) PERCEIVED needs.
  • it could be because of

    "my Windows XP-based Thinkpad T42, which has been behaving erratically as of late, very matter of factly switched to a blue screen with white characters that informed me that my system had experienced a catastrophic error. Long time Windows users will recognize this as the infamous Blue Screen of Death (BSOD). "

    its possible that you have some incorrect drivers.
    Its could be your hardware thats acting. Its normal that when anything goes wrong, software is blamed.