Convergence: The People's Choice
As we say goodbye to 2006, the convergence of computing models appears to be overtaking distinct types of computing such as Software as a Service (SaaS) to the point where distinct models are becoming irrelevant. In other words, as the next generation of technology evolves, SaaS or, say, mobile computing will become so integrated into the fabric of mainstream computing as to be unrecognizable.
Of course, there are fanatics, such as some SaaS vendors, that have a hard time coming to terms with this, so it's worthwhile to revisit how SaaS first came about and, more important, how it will be absorbed into the mainstream.
Originally pioneered by the likes of ADP and later turned into a marketing phenomenon by Salesforce.com, the core principle of SaaS is that all applications can be served over the Web, thereby eliminating the need for client software. To hear the SaaS fanatics tell it, this model will supersede all existing computing models. In fact, they often point to what Google is doing with Google Docs and Microsoft's pending Office Live response as proof positive of the truth of their convictions.
But upon further review, it's becoming pretty clear that Microsoft is really pursuing a hybrid strategy under which it envisions robust client applications being seamlessly integrated with rich sets of services delivered over the Web. You might argue that Microsoft is forced into that model because of history, but upon closer examination you also discover that Google appears to be pursuing a similar strategy that not only involves Google tools on the desktop, but a future browser offering that will come embedded with Google Docs applications.
This is not a new idea. Back in the heyday of the dot-com boom, Netscape talked about using the browser as a platform for delivering applications. But instead of pursuing that strategy, the company embarked on a misguided effort to reinvent the enterprise application server wheel.
Fast-forward to 2006, and it looks like Google's game plan is to resurrect the Netscape strategy to break Microsoft's dominance over productivity applications. What's ironic is that while Microsoft continues its strategy of embedding the browser in the operating system while Google is embedding applications in the browser, both companies clearly see that having a footprint on the client is critical to their long-term success.
This is because people have become tired of using discrete applications when what they really want is an integrated set of applications that closely reflects the business process or task they are trying to accomplish. On the desktop, that means using a set of tools where the spreadsheet, word processor, e-mail client and presentation software are indistinguishable as separate applications. In the enterprise, it means having customer relationship management software that is tightly coupled to general ledger and supply chain software so as to accurately reflect a complex set of business processes rather than loosely coupled sets of applications. In short, people want software to bend to their needs, instead of forcing them to yield to the way some programmer envisioned they should use it.
In the corporate world, this is called business agility. To achieve it, you need the capability to employ code as you see fit on the client, on an on-premise server, inside the network and, yes, on a remote server that delivers software as a service.
Both Microsoft and Google plan to take this integrated model one step further. Their goal: to create ecosystems through which they and their software partners deliver integrated applications across a spectrum of platforms where each instance of a user's interaction with that software will be remembered, whether the user invokes applications over a cell phone, notebook, desktop computer or other device. In that scenario, on-demand software applications are a natural extension of the computing model, rather than a distinct set of silo applications that must be integrated via brute-force programming.
Microsoft and Google are not the only vendors aware of this extended model of computing, so it's logical to assume that IBM, SAP and Oracle will develop their own branded versions of such an ecosystem. Salesforce.com, in fact, has launched its AppXchange service, under which it hosts third-party applications that complement its core CRM offering.
And, true to form, every one of these vendors will try to tell you that they have finally created the ultimate computing model. What we're really seeing, however, is the long-overdue convergence of computing models into a unified architecture featuring software that customers can adapt to their business processesinstead of making customers adapt to the software.
Michael Vizard is editorial director at ziff davis media's enterprise technology group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.