Disruptions in the software fabric

Dan Farber: According to a recent Gartner report, companies such as Oracle, SAP and Microsoft need to carve up their big packages into bite-sized chunks of functionality -- not exactly a new revelation. In the long run, software is evolving toward the Salesforce.com on-demand, "client services" model and away from the client/server architecture.

COMMENTARY -- According to a recent Gartner report, companies such as Oracle, SAP and Microsoft need to deliver more modular, bite-sized chunks of functionality, which would allow customers to update systems with more flexibility and speed. It's not exactly a new revelation. All the major software vendors are working hard to simplify their hard-to-integrate, complex applications with more modular, adaptable components and development environments. They adapted to the Internet by providing Web-based user interfaces to their products. It's part of the move to on-demand applications, which Salesforce.com is trumpeting with more disruptive notes at its user conference this week in San Francisco.

There is a big difference between Oracle or SAP and Salesforce.com and its brethren, which apply a software-as-a-service model. The established players can't simply make smaller chunks -- which are typically part of a bigger, vendor-centric software stacks and make the software less complex or difficult deploy. Their applications are still on much longer development cycles than the upstarts. Salesforce.com is about five years old and on its 17th release, CEO Marc Benioff said. SugarCRM, which sells subscriptions to commercialized open source CRM software, claims that customers with a Linux, Apache and MySQL server platform can be up and running in 15 minutes. And, customers can take advantage of the open source ecosystem to modify the software to meet business needs.

Clearly, the scale of the applications is smaller than most traditional enterprise applications, but the new class of hosted, on-demand, modular applications have more scalability. "It's 100 times cheaper to support customers using Web applications than custom Windows applications," said Adam Bosworth, vice president of engineering at Google, who has also been involved in creating Microsoft Access, Internet Explorer, and BEA's WebLogic Workshop for Java.

Speaking at the Salesforce.com user conference, Bosworth said that simplicity trumps complexity in software design, citing XML and RSS as examples of simple solutions for delivering functionality. Most importantly, Web-based applications provide developers with an instant feedback loop to improve products at a rapid pace. By tracking clicks and other metric of users (with appropriate privacy policies), vendors can evolve products in ways that make them easier to use and roll out changes quickly without distracting customers or deploying a battalion of IT staff for implementation at each customer site.

Salesforce.com and other hosted application service providers have been criticized by the traditional software companies as lacking in sophisticated features and the ability to customize for specific industries and company objectives. But Salesforce.com, along with companies like NetSuite, RightNow Technologies, and Siebel Systems (Siebel On Demand, formerly UpShot), are increasing functionality (and adding some complexity) to address gaps, and with practically zero deployment headaches for customers -- it all happens within the hosted application service center.

Salesforce.com also announced today Customforce as part of the Salesforce.com Winter ‘05 (available Nov. 15) software release. The company is going after companies that build client/server applications, using products such as Microsoft Access and Filemaker to develop custom applications. Customforce.com allows the development of customized applications -- such as asset management, HR recruiting, bug tracking, and inventory management -- without programming for the Salesforce.com and Supportforce.com platform.

The ultimate goal, according to Benioff, is to move beyond vertical solutions, customized for a particular industry sector, to software customized for each company. "Cisco Systems doesn't want the high-tech version," Benioff said. "They want the Cisco version. They want the edition that's exactly for them. That's what Customforce is all about. That is our strategic direction."

Saleforce.com continues to set the pace for disrupting the software fabric, in part through its marketing efforts that tout the end of software, meaning companies don't want the fixed cost, risks or complexity of managing complex enterprise software implementations. The company is moving from providing applications to becoming a software development platform that leverages the Internet, hosted services, and a subscription-based economic model.

Breaking SAP, Oracle and other major software packages into smaller units so that customers can more rapidly reconfigure existing systems and deploy applications for discrete tasks, as Gartner suggests, is a good step. Some are already on that path, such as SAP's focus on add-on software and composite applications. In fact, SAP's NetWeaver and Salesforce.com's Customforce and Sforce platform have similarities. Both provide an extensive platform for building composite applications using a services-oriented architecture. And, they both lock you into their underlying platform to run applications. However, customers can walk away from Salesforce.com, with their data, by terminating the monthly subscription payments. Walking away from an SAP application would be a bit more complicated.

As Bosworth says, simplicity wins. In the long run, software is evolving toward the Salesforce.com on-demand, client services model and away from the client/server architecture. But, don't count out the behemoths -- a few will survive the disruption and continue to rule in the next generation.

You can write to me at dan.farber@cnet.com. If you're looking for my commentaries on other IT topics, check out my blog Between the Lines or my column archives.


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