Web 2.0: Putting webware on the webtop

I heard more sense about the future of software at the SIIA's conference today than I did at Web 2.0 Expo down the road. It seems at least some vendors already understand very well how to make the transition from software to webware.

David Thomas, executive director of the software division at the software industry lobby group the SIIA, pulled me to one side last night to confide a guilty secret: "I invented the term 'software as a service'," he told me, "back in 2000."

But since then, the term has taken on an unwanted life of its own, he continued. "We needed a way of describing what we were doing as an industry, but it doesn't say anything to users."

That's why Thomas is now aiming to get his members to think in terms of a completely new term; the webtop. "That's where the younger generation works today. When the Internet goes down, right away my kids start screaming, 'Dad, can you fix the Internet, I can't do anything'. Their world is the webtop."

So here I am, spending my time between Web 2.0 Expo at the Moscone and the SIIA's S4 conference a couple blocks away at the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco. Tonight I head down the valley to Santa Clara for SaaScon. And despite the different terminology — SaaS, webtop, webware, Web 2.0, web-what-ever — they're all talking about the same thing: a new way of looking at software, and what the software industry is going to do about it.

Thomas is championing the word webtop as a way of challenging the software industry's traditional focus on the desktop. That's not where the action is any more, he points out: it's also on the Web, and on mobile devices. Applications have to be designed to be used on all of these locations (not just in the web browser, by the way), and that's what the word webtop is designed to convey.

Down the road at the Moscone this morning, there was a panel discussing 'From software to webware: how web-based applications will shake the software industry.' I was planning to live-blog the debate, but in a marketing masterstroke by WiFi sponsor Adobe to bolster interest in its Apollo smart client technology, the coverage was so poor I was obliged to take notes offline. The debate was a disappointment, though, despite some highlights which I'll return to in a moment.

Now I'm sitting in an SIIA session, 'The big bang of SaaS: strategic change agent of just another service,' and I have to confess the debate is at a much higher level than the Web 2.0 speakers achieved this morning. It's clear therefore that the software industry — at least as represented in this discussion by Business Objects, Salesforce.com, OpenAir and LeCayla Technologies, along with investment company ICG — is starting to get its head around this new way of looking at software. They're talking about issues like customer experience, consumerization, customer responsiveness, collaboration with customers and other vendors, mashups, bundling with business services, integration, changing business models, customization and emerging new application areas, especially those previously untouched by software.

The webware discussion at Web 2.0 in the morning had been more narrowly focused, mostly discussing customization to user needs. That's an important angle but it's far from the whole picture. The best lines on that point came from John Seely Brown, former CTO and head of research at Xerox and now a visiting professor at USC. He spoke of the sheer frustration business managers feel at their inability to get software that meets their working needs, and how business process automation typically leaves users doing all kinds of workarounds to game the system in order to achieve the desired business results.

In a powerful insight, he added: "We are now creating tools for the office that serve people with a gaming disposition." He noted that building a business dashboard using an online tool was probably still a much less complex task than building a console to organize your troops within the World of Warcraft roleplaying game.

One point of agreement with the SIIA's speakers was the ability to serve a mass market of currently unserved users, which Coghead's Paul McNamara described as the source of "a big disruption."

But in a disappointing demonstration that some members of the software industry still have a lot to learn, SAP's senior VP of architecture and newly appointed CTO Vishal Sikka opined that the market for webware largely consisted of users that SAP can't yet serve directly with its own products.