Let users write their own applications

Nsite's latest release is a hosted IDE that allows users to modify, build and deploy sophisticated applications online without having to write a single line of code.

Who is best qualified to automate a business process? In the past, a software developer was the only available choice, and the qualifications required were technology related. But the only people who really understand what the automation needs to achieve are the people who own and operate the processes — the business users themselves. Shouldn't they be the ones to create and modify the software applications that automate their work?

The Nsite tool is certainly a huge advance in usability and flexibility.

Nsite certainly believes they should. Last week, the company released version 5.0 of its hosted business process automation service, which uses DHTML and AJAX technologies to put drag-and-drop application building into the hands of business analysts and process owners. Both the application builder and the finished applications are served on-demand by Nsite.

Nsite, who I first mentioned in September, targets smaller businesses who typically can't afford teams of software developers or expensive packaged application solutions. The new release is leading with two ready-made applications designed to appeal to such businesses: Quote Management and Channel Management, both of which are pitched to take advantage of another feature of on-demand delivery; the ease of extending some parts of the application to external users. But the icing on the cake is that every element of these applications is fully customizable using its online application builder, which can also be used to build completely new functions and applications.

Having seen several browser-based application builders in my time, I can say that the Nsite tool is certainly a huge advance in usability and flexibility (all the features can be tried out for free in a 5-user starter edition). It brings together the basic tools of data and workflow management — forms, reports, email and hyperlinks — into a visual interface that's very clear and functional. A lot of that is down to AJAX, which Nsite's VP marketing, Rosie Hausler, told me is probably a first for a hosted business application builder: "We believe we're the first company using AJAX for customizing and delivering applications as a service."

But it's not AJAX alone. Nsite deserves praise for the uncompromising way it's fulfilled its vision. The capabilities included in the tool are very sophisticated. For example, there's an option to populate fields in a form or a report using a web services interface — APIs from Salesforce.com and Siebel are supported at present. If they want, developers can expand functionality by adding custom Javascript actions to individual elements on a form. All the database tables required by the application are created on the fly as the forms are built (or modified). Behind the scenes, the tool builds the source code in XML, which can be viewed at any time. There are several other useful features that log activity in deployed applications for analysis and reporting.

With all this sophistication, it's unlikely that software developers (or at least, those that know Javascript and XML) will find themselves out of work anytime soon. But tools like Nsite at last make it possible for process owners— especially power users and business analysts — to try their hand at making their own tweaks and modifications, or even adding simple applications from scratch, without having to go through a developer before they see the results. This makes it a lot easier for them to test out hunches about different ways of doing things, and ultimately create automation that really makes sense in the context of the business.