Acronym soup

As new services are being delivered, the old ASP term may not really work anymore as an umbrella term for all of the new business models that are being invented.

Most eWeek readers know -- or at least think they know -- the meaning of the acronym ASP. (I don't mean Active Server Pages; I mean application service provider.)

An ASP is a company that provides applications as a secure online service to other companies and consumers. That seems easy enough.

But as with all things new in IT, it's never that simple. To be well versed in ASPs these days, you better catch up on FSP (full service provider), BSP (business service provider), VSP (vertical service provider) and MSP (management service provider). Now be careful, there's also the MsecSP, or managed security service provider. And how about one for the road? AAA snuggles an acronym within an acronym to stand for ASP application aggregator.

Confused? It's not surprising. A lot of the folks attending this week's North American ASP World Forum in Orlando were probably equally confused as speakers sprinkled these new acronyms throughout their presentations. Even though most speakers did make attempts at defining the new acronyms for the mere mortals in the crowd, it made me wonder whether the old ASP term really works anymore as an umbrella term for all of the new business models being invented.

I know that acronym soup is nothing new in high tech. An acronym, after all, codifies a new technological or business concept. It is a springboard for classifying vendors and conceptualizing IT tasks. It gains startups the attention of analysts and propels their names into the pages and Web sites of magazines like this one. Taken too far, though, acronym proliferation can obscure meaning and, worse, confuse potential customers.

The first time I attended an ASP conference, in August of 1999 in San Francisco, most ASPs were delivering hosted versions of existing applications such as ERP (enterprise resource planning) or CRM (customer relationship management) through the Web. These were companies such as US Internetworking and Corio. A smattering were software startups that developed specific Web-only applications sold in a service model.

Their ranks have burst, and few, if any, ASPs are claiming to simply offer Web-delivered versions of client/server enterprise applications on a monthly subscription. They're focusing on tying in other outsourced business functions related to particular applications or specializing in a vertical industry or managing a single piece of the ASP puzzle such as networks and security.

One look at the definition of ASP put forth by the industry itself demonstrates the increasing broadness of the term. As the ASP Industry Consortium defines it, an "ASP manages and delivers application capabilities to multiples entities from a data center across a wide area network." An ASP need not be a commercial business, consortium chairman Traver Gruen-Kennedy told Orlando conferees during his keynote address. It can be an organization delivering an app to another organization -- say one government agency to another.

On the commercial side, a popular consumer service such as NTT DoCoMo Inc.'s wildly successful i-mode wireless service is an ASP because it delivers applications from games to messages to consumers, Gruen-Kennedy said. That would certainly make an Internet service provider such as AOL or a Web portal such as Yahoo ASPs as well, then. They deliver perhaps the world's most popular application, e-mail programs.

ASPs sure have come a long way from my first brush with them in San Francisco. Many of the changes are good. But the meaning of that three-letter acronym is hardly any clearer to me, nor do I think to most potential customers. At some point soon, maybe this year or maybe in three, the term is going to loose its usefulness. Customers simply want to know what these companies do, regardless of whether they call themselves ASPs or one of the dozens of "-SP" variants.

The ASP industry will succeed when it no longer needs an acronym. Then maybe you and I both will be a little saner. And Web programmers can reclaim that other meaning for ASP.

Can you keep them all straight? Drop me a line at Off the Cuff appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.