SaaS in 2007: reaching out to offline users

SaaS in 2007: reaching out to offline users

Summary: Earlier this year, I got flamed for daring to suggest that universal connectivity was just a pipedream. But now some of the poster children of Web 2.0 are bringing out offline clients. Expect many more in 2007.

TOPICS: Tech Industry

Just a few months ago, I got flamed by several usually friendly bloggers for pointing out Why Office 2.0 will never go wholly online. Timed a few days before the Office 2.0 conference, my posting was lambasted as "wrong and naive" by Stefan Topfler, while Dennis Howlett said I was both "ignoring reality" and "deny[ing] history"!

Yet by the time the conference had wrapped up, quite a few attendees seemed to have come around to embracing some kind of hybrid model for on-demand applications. Now, as we approach the end of the year, two of the best-known vendors associated with the Office 2.0 movement have announced new versions of their applications that support disconnected working.

Socialtext's unplugged iconThinkfree, one of the longest-established Web-based productivity suite vendors, yesterday announced that users will be able to buy a paid version of its application that allows them to work on documents while offline. Earlier this week, enterprise wiki vendor Socialtext launched Socialtext Unplugged for "the occasionally connected user," as CEO Ross Mayfield put it (thanks to Socialtext for the unplugged icon pictured).

Seems these two vendors have been listening to customers and have acknowledged their customers' need to work on documents even while disconnected from the Web — exactly the need I had previously highlighted.

My prediction for 2007 is that we'll see more and more on-demand vendors coming out with clients that support offline working. In fact, I think we're going to see an important debate developing in the SaaS industry about the best way to deliver functionality to users. Most vendors still aim to do it in the browser, but I think there are limitations to technologies like Ajax, especially when compared to the 'smart client' capabilities of emerging platforms like Microsoft Vista and Adobe Apollo. Those limitations have already led RightNow Technologies, for example, to introduce a smart client to improve the end user experience.

I'm currently writing about some of these issues in a series of articles commissioned and published by on-demand CRM vendor entellium, which recently introduced its own smart client platform (entellium is a client and I also hold a small equity position. See disclosure page). The latest article has proven to be very timely in view of the news from Socialtext and Thinkfree, and in particular takes issue with those who argue that broadband connectivity will soon be as ubiquitous as electricity:

"... the more mobile our computing becomes, the less comparable it is to the dependable utility power supply that comes out of the wall socket. Frequent interruptions on wireless networks are the norm, not the exception. They're cellular precisely because mobile devices disconnect and reconnect all the time, constantly switching to stronger signals as weaker connections fail. If this is the environment the devices are used in, then it's far from logical to design the software that runs on them as if connectivity will be a given."

The key point at issue here is that intermittent disconnection is an inherent fact of life in a network environment, and that a truly robust on-demand application design will accommodate disconnection in a transparent and non-disruptive manner. Anyone who designs their clients to be continuously dependent on their connection to the center is actually perpetuating a hangover from the days of monolithic, centralized computing. Clients aren't second-class citizens that are only worthy of consideration when they're visible over a live network connection. In a truly net-native architecture, clients are part of the network too. Even when they're offline.

This is the first of three articles in which I'll be making predictions for SaaS in 2007. What are your predictions? Same or different? Share your views in Talkback.  

Topic: Tech Industry

Phil Wainewright

About Phil Wainewright

Since 1998, Phil Wainewright has been a thought leader in cloud computing as a blogger, analyst and consultant.

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  • The future of SaaS is...

    The split horizon execution and instant resume of ?any? application as a service and not only the CRM/ERP/SCM/HR and alike software stacks what we see these days?..
  • Office prductivity vs specialized functions

    I am wondering if there is a difference between online office productivity software and online ERP type software. I think that intermittent connectivity loss is a pain, perhaps a deal breaker for constantly used software or software that requires long-term focused use, like word processing or spreadsheets. But I think there exists software that is used differently where the connection losses are not as big a deal. For example, CRM software. I am no expert, but I imagine that the process can be, talk to a customer (majority of the day) and then record in the system what occured. Its obviously better to occur in real-time, but it can happen asynchronously. There are other SaaS applications where functionality is broken down into small pieces which is less forgiving to outages. Consider writing a one page blog, versus checking your email. Writing requires continuous focus or you could lose your train of thought and/or your prior work - email is piecemeal, find new email, read one, read another, etc. If email is down for 5 minutes, its easy to return to it later. If word is down for 5 minutes, I can sit and wait or use paper (lest I get distracted or forget my genius idea). So I think that fully online applications can be successful, but I think that it does depend on the purpose and use of the application. Just an idea - maybe based on the Task/Technology Fit theory somewhat.
  • What problem "Web Office" address?

    I really fail understand that. What exactly would having a web-based office suite give me that I don't have already? It seems like it would be a substantial downgrade from traditional software like MS Office or OpenOffice, and because OpenOffice is free there's no price benefit.
    Erik Engbrecht
  • Good Job....

    This is a great job man how do you manage it... ..
  • Good Job....

    This is a great job man how do you manage it... ..
  • Good Job....

    This is a great job man how do you manage it..........
  • hi

  • Expectations

    In today's world we need to agree asynchronous computing is a must. We are more geographically dispersed than ever and wireless broadband connectivity just hasn't kept up. In the years to come we may, in fact, not have to worry about disconnects, but until then we must assume users don't want to worry about getting a WiFi signal to get their latest sales numbers.

    Let's assume we'll get there someday. But for the short-term we need strong collaborative functions merged with ERP/Financial systems that can handle asynchronous activity. Oh, BTW, something scalable too, so large enterprises as well as SMB's can join the party.

    Too much to ask?

    Thanks for the article. I look forward to future installments.
  • exactly right...too much cloud makes for fog

    The cloud has its place, but sometimes things will and should happen on-premise, whether that premise is your hard-drive or your own IT department.

    I dont think this is just a SaaS thing though. I wrote today about Adobe Apollo-SAP, we need bridges between these worlds, not walls....
  • offline SaaS

    SaaS becoming offline is - when possible - a great idea. After all, most wifi networks are unstable from time to time, and so the users may give up the app.

    Regards from Israel,

    Stefano (we SaaS too)
  • Never mind wireless...

    My cable Internet hasn't been anywhere near as reliable as my pokey old dial-up connection was. It's bad enough when I can't connect to IM and e-mail. I absolutely refuse to depend on an Internet connection for basic tasks like word processing.
  • On Demand Excel for Planning

    When it comes to dealing with collaboration and analytics - Excel is still king. I don?t know a single executive for a fortune 500 company that does not live off of Excel (or maybe a printed out version of it!) The key with Excel is it is easy to use and it works both on and off line - the challenge is this that it is uncontrolled, not really scaleable (vista may help) and it does not automatically update with information from the companies core systems (ERP, SFA, etc).

    Enter: Enterprise Enabled Excel: Companies like Steelwedge ( have done a nice job of balancing the benefits of on-demand with the value of off line usability of common tools like Excel and Outlook. The solution allows users to slice and dice the data, complete off line scenarios, analytics, capture notes and actually update/make changes while off line. Then the system does a simple sync next time the user gets their email (small xml package, etc) - If the user is on line the system automatically knows and does the updates real time. Steelwedge, unlike SAP/Duet have been working with enterprise enabled excel for 6 years now - and the technology does not only work with Vista (it goes back to excel 98...)

    On demand that works off-line is key ? Steelwedge has figured this out.
  • Omniscope-Universal Desktop client for SaaS

    SaaS vendors do not have to choose between dumping to general purpose (30 year old architecture) Excel or writing their own special-purpose clients to achieve a 'best-of-both worlds' hybrid architecture. Visokio Omniscope is a general purpose desktop client that replaces the most-used aspects of Access, Excel and PowerPoint using a portable file format like .PDF. It scales and uses the full power/RAM of modern desktops. Omniscope supports scrubbing, analysis, queries and reporting...for any structured data set...including geospatial/maps and images. To see it in action, check out the Visokio Connector for Salesforce.