SaaS client reaches functional parity with client-server

On-demand CRM vendor RightNow Technologies is claiming its new SaaS client for contact center desktops now offers functional parity with on-premise rivals

Some purists may disagree, but my definition of a SaaS client goes outside of the browser to include a client that runs on the desktop machine so long as it's still controlled and managed from the Web. Now that Adobe has introduced AIR and Microsoft offers Silverlight, this concept has become more commonplace than it was when AJAX, JavaScript and Java applets were the only form of rich client you heard SaaS proponents talking about.

Only a handful of vendors were developing the notion of what I call the serviced client even before AIR and Silverlight appeared on the horizon. They wanted to deliver functionality that wasn't realistic if they stayed within the browser, but they also wanted to stay with the SaaS model, retaining responsibility for maintaining and upgrading the software instead of washing their hands of it and leaving it to the customer.

RightNow logo
RightNow Technologies was one of the first vendors to develop this kind of client, and yesterday the on-demand CRM vendor launched its 08 Release, which takes advantage of new capabilities in Microsoft's .NET framework to do things on the client that have only previously been seen in traditional Windows-based client-server applications.

This is particulary important in RightNow's core market serving contact center call agents, as VP of products David Vap explained to me in a pre-briefing late last week:

"If your core application is sales force automation that's different and probably wouldn't require our approach," he said. "But if you're an agent on the phone with a customer trying to resolve their problem, response times and productivity are critical."

The killer feature of RightNow's new release is something known as 'contextual workspaces'. The workspace dynamically changes based on knowledge about the customer they are dealing with or the actions that they take, presenting menu options and information on the screen that relate to whatever the agent is currently dealing with. That may sound somewhat coercive to those of us that work in a more ad-hoc way, but call agents don't have the luxury of extemporizing. The faster they can resolve the customer's query without keeping them hanging on the line, the better. Good contact center software helps them do their job without embarrassing hesitations or time-wasting deviations.

In the past, a dynamic client environment like this depended on proprietary workflow logic built into the application vendor's own client desktop software, but the updated RightNow client instead depends on the workflow engine built into .NET 3.0, which forms part of the Windows operating system (in Vista, it's installed as part of the OS, while for XP it's a auto-installable download option). Vap made no bones about the role Microsoft technology plays in the RightNow client: "Microsoft has come out with major releases of .NET in the past 18 months, all of them chock-full of capabilities that make it easy to build powerful end-user applications." The RightNow client uses the same ribbon menu concept as Office 2008 and is designed to be usable with minimal extra training by someone who is already familiar with the Office enviroment — another feature that goes down well with customers. RightNow allows customers to choose when they implement the new release, rather than pushing it out to everyone simultaneously, and most are migrating to Office 2008 before they upgrade, said Vap.

Although it's theoretically possible to build all of these capabilities entirely inside the browser, there are penalties both in terms of response times and also the amount of code required. "We actually download less from our servers than does, because of the AJAX and JavaScript needed to enable all of the functions," Vap told me.

Although the software downloads to and runs on the client, outside of the browser, it's still entirely managed from RightNow's servers. To start using it, the user goes to a URL in a browser and the definition of the application is automatically downloaded, but information such as user privileges and live data still comes from the network. There's no need to have Windows administrator rights on the client machine to implement the application. "Every single aspect of the application is handled through our servers," said Vap.

As I mentioned at the outset, some may argue that's not a true on-demand model, but in my view this is increasingly how SaaS vendors are going to deliver clients — especially for complex enterprise applications. And it's how SaaS vendors are going to show that they're every bit as sophisticated as the on-premise client-server applications they aim to replace. People seem to think that network applications have to sit in the middle of the network but I'd say that serving code that's centrally managed but which runs on the client counts as a network application. After all, the client is part of the network too.