I'd been meaning to write about Softricity for a while because of the significance of its technology for Microsoft's smart client strategy, particularly in the context of Vista. Well, now that Microsoft has bought Softricity, the time has come for me to set down my thoughts.
I last spoke to David Greschler, Softricity's co-founder and VP marketing, back in January,With Softgrid, Microsoft can offer network-based applications that execute in Vista at a time when I was doing a lot of thinking about the role for serviced clients in the emerging enterprise web or Web 3.0 environment.
A 'serviced client' is one that's managed from the network. Obviously this includes rich clients that run in the browser using technologies such as AJAX and Flex. These clients only function when they're connected. It also includes smart clients that run on the desktop. Many of these continue to operate when disconnected, but any updating of the code or synchronization of data is done automatically when they reconnect.
Serviced clients combine the best of both worlds for users. They provide all the convenience of network-resident applications — no installation or upgrade woes — along with all the rich functionality of desktop-resident applications — lightning-fast data retrieval and validation, high-speed graphics, astounding multimedia capabilities and so on.
The important point about serviced clients is that people are always thinking about rich client and smart client as a dichotomy — a struggle between two opponents — one delivered to a browser, the other physically installed on the desktop. In the serviced client world, they are simply different points on a single continuum.
The importance of Softricity is that it stretches that continuum all the way to the Windows desktop — and across all versions of Windows, from NT to Vista. Its Softgrid product converts the client component of any Windows application — even the most antediluvian client-server application — into a serviced client.
"What we do is we make these applications act like applications that are living in an on-demand world," Greschler explained to me. "We've transformed every Windows application out there — including DOS applications — into on-demand applications."
Of course this is a life-saver for enterprises, as Dana Gardner described last week, because it gives them much more flexibility over when they migrate or replace legacy client-server applications as Vista rolls out. There are other benefits too, such as allowing users to hot-desk between different machines. But I think the most interesting use for the Softgrid technology will be in delivering new Vista applications in serviced client mode.
Microsoft desperately needs users to upgrade to Vista, and the single biggest reason why they'll do that is if it brings them significantly better applications. Trouble is, in an increasingly Web-enabled and mobile world, many of the best new applications reside on the network, not on the desktop. With Softgrid, Microsoft can offer network-based applications that execute in Vista on the desktop, which means they can tap into all the advanced graphics and other performance benefits of Vista while still having all the connectivity-led advantages that browser-based applications enjoy. When we discussed this in January, Greschler was well aware how helpful his product could be to Microsoft in its battle to ward off web-based competition from the likes of Google:
"There are many applications out there where there's a lot of processing that has to happen at a local level," he told me. "For example, voice recognition in healthcare so doctors can dictate reports. When people look at this [network-based] Google desktop idea they tend not to look at the local processing that's being done in the real world."
I don't know whether this formed part of Softricity's pitch to Microsoft when they cut the acquisition deal. With its integration to Microsoft's SMS management suite, Softgrid brings a lot of value purely as a tool to help enterprises manage their desktop applications. But I will be surprised if there aren't a few people from Microsoft's Live division already crawling all over Softricity's software. It would be quite a triumph if they could use it to develop a new generation of network-based killer applications that will drive uptake of Windows Vista.