While the Web 2.0 crowd get excited about the superficial appeal of simple mashups, SaaS vendors have been quietly equipping users with do-it-yourself composite application tools that help them get their jobs done faster and better. My prediction is that 2007 is going to see an explosion of these DIY 'enterprise mashup' tools and applications, and that their adoption is going to fundamentally change the way we think about integration and customization. Here are some of the characteristics of DIY composition that are most notably distinct from conventional notions of integration and customization:
The user never stops to think how to do this or why they need to do it. The platforms just allow them to go ahead and do it. There are countless manual information tasks in everybody's day-to-day routines that we'd all love to automate, if only there was an easy way — as Enterprise Irregulars blogger Rod Boothby, recently wrote:
"Think about the number of times you have to manually complete a process in both your work and personal life. How much effort does it take to build expense reports from information in your calendar, your email and at your credit card web site? Have you ever looked for an apartment in San Francisco or New York, and found yourself checking Craigslist ten times a day? Maybe you are in sales and you want to organize your calendar so that you visit the clients in Burbank on Tuesday and the clients in Orange County on Wednesday? ... Who wouldn't want an army of ... little robots to bring all this information together, organize it, react to important changes, and most importantly, do it all in exactly the way you want it done?"
Boothby just left Ernst & Young to take up a new job at Teqlo, whose composition tools aim to make it easy for users to automate linkages like these, with no pain and no coding. In the past, there were too many hurdles for it to be worthwhile to deal with all those little inconveniences — too much programming, too much process analysis, too many cost-justification hoops to jump through. Now the tools are starting to emerge that let you just do it.
I was talking to eProject last week, an on-demand collaboration vendor that's been in existence since 1997, and currently claims almost 100,000 users, with an average deployment size of around 200 seats. Its application suite is highly configurable by users, who combine functions such as notifications, routing and approvals to create very sophisticated process automations in application areas such as product development, IT management and process management. What it's been most surprised by is the success of its eLounge area, where users not only discuss what they've been doing but also exchange complete applications with each other. Of course in the past you had to be quite technically minded to get to grips with someone else's application, but that's no longer true of mashup platforms that are designed to be easy for a business user.
Users are much smarter than software. When they bring data into composite documents and screens on their own desktop, they understand where it's come from and how to interpret it. This is different from integration software, which needs to have everything that can possibly be known about the data pre-programmed into it before it can do a similar operation. All that pre-programming is what makes integration middleware so unwieldy, inflexible and expensive. Integration at the desktop eliminates it. Users already have all the metadata they need inside their heads. Giving them control of composition lets them apply it directly, without having to code software.
I saw an example of this earlier this week when Bill Appleton, CTO of Dreamfactory, showed me the company's new release Carousel, which is an elaboration of concepts developed for another recent arrival, FormFactory. These products use Dreamfactory's client-side platform to pull together, present and manipulate information from single or multiple external sources. Carousel is sort of a cross between a dashboard and a PowerPoint presentation. It allows you to build a set of slides that present information from live sources, so for example you can build the slides for a monthly sales meeting and they'll always contain the most current information at every meeting. A 'mashup manager' dialog box within the application lets the user make connections and define how data flows across them on-the-fly.
In my previous post about SaaS in 2007, I talked about reaching out to offline users, but as this post shows, offline working isn't the only reason the client is going to become more of a first-class citizen in the SaaS environment in 2007. If user-directed composition is going to begin replacing some aspects of server-side integration then that will need a very robust client-side platform. The client will still be managed from the network, but more and more of it is going to be running beyond the browser.
This is the second of three articles in which I'm making predictions for SaaS in 2007. What are your predictions? Same or different? Share your views in Talkback.