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Cloud and the end of the PC era

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I was asked to comment on the question “Are we close to the end of the PC era?” at ebizQ. It was a good enough question to prompt this post.

Indeed we are – I’d say that we’re already beyond it. I think that the proliferation of web applications is the curtain call of the PC era, leading the way to the Cloud era. I consider myself an avid PC user and cherish its stand-alone autonomy, yet I already use my PC mostly to access web based applications. And without web access, much of the stand-alone value would become a moot (or should I say Stale?) point.

The PC era introduced the practice of Business Empowered IT, in which the central IT department was short-circuited by business units who needed situational solutions “now and here”. That practice is endowed to the Cloud era, but in a more mitigated manner.

After the heady drunkenness of Business Empowered IT adoption, enterprises woke up to the hangover of unmanageable application portfolios and business disruptions due to rogue code. The result was a backlash trend towards centralized IT, which made PC’s a physical extension of the computing centre.

But it did result in a role change, in which Business got the lead role in requisitioning new solutions and IT projects.

The introduction of the Cloud and SaaS brought back some of the PC era Business Empowered IT practices, as the well-known example of Salesforce.com demonstrated. But at a very different level. What we see now is actually Business Empowered Solutions (or Business Technology, as Forrester termed it), in which what really matters is the process and not the IT implementation.

That is further amplified by the rapid adoption of mobile computing, in particular smartphones and tablets. As long as you have web access, who cares about the device?

And as one would expect, in the Cloud era we see completely new business practices and enterprises, which are the embodiment of Business Technology.

Take for example eBay and its Partner Network business (ePN). This whole business revolves around web sites and applications which reference eBay offerings and catalyse sales of eBay merchants. That’s actually a business which is already derived from existing Cloud business, and which could not exist without a thriving internet economy.

The PC, or any other IT equipment, has become immaterial and a commodity.

So here we go – applause to the good old PC, and Hello Cloud.

A broader perspective on Google’s CHROME OS

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Following the Chrome OS announcement by Google and the hype it generated, I was asked be several people to comment on it. If you lean back and take a certain perspective, it is fascinating to realize how well it fits into the long term technology lifecycle evolution. Having hated History classes as a student, I’m becoming increasingly impressed by the insights it can provide as years go by…

What we see in computing technology is that initially, new features and products are delivered as independent products. Features that become successful and ubiquitous evolve in functionality and become more generic, often ending up as an infrastructure or Operating System option. One of the most dramatic examples that I experienced was the Image Viewer (that is today part of Windows) for TIFF images. In the early 90’s, when Document Imaging was introduced, you could only scan and view documents using specialized hardware accelerators (a dominant vendor was Kofax). The extra cost to support TIFF viewing on a PC was close to $2000, plus an expensive monitor. Many Document Imaging companies (mine included) made a lot of revenue developing and selling Software viewers, reducing user costs by half. Finally (about 8 years later), Microsoft purchased the TIFF viewer that Wang developed and incorporated it for free within Windows.

The evolving Internet now brings about Cloud Computing, and many new features and products are gaining wide adoption (I refer to this in my “living in SOA” post). The Browser was very material in making that happen. The Browser can be considered as a window to the internet. But as more and more users expect to use net-native applications and devices, the Browser is clearly outdated and underperforming. After all, it was designed to display information – not to contain and execute business logic.

What users want now is a door to the internet – designed for bi-directional exchange and more, not just for browsing. Some vendors with extensive web application experience already understood that, and have come up with alternatives to the Browser that support Rich Internet Applications – such as Adobe Air, Microsoft Silverlight or Magic Software uniPaaS RIA. These are very compact engines (the uniPaaS RIA Client is only 2MB) that are designed to execute net-native applications, where the application code resides “in the cloud” (like portals) yet the user gets a rich interactive desktop experience (unlike portals). As I describe in “A battle royale for RIA market” however, developing applications for most of these “new doors” is pretty complex. A handful of vendors started addressing this hurdle, led by Magic Software with uniPaaS and maybe followed by Microsoft with ‘Alexandria’

Google Chrome OS seems to be right in the same evolutionary line. From the scant information I was able to get, it is trying to move all those hurdles down into the OS level and abstract them from users, so that users and application developers would be able to once again focus most of their effort on business logic and user experience rather than on underlying technologies. But we have to be patient and wait for it to become available. And then wait a few years for it to mature.

In the meantime, why not go ahead and use what’s available? After all, history also shows us that those companies who used the early Document Imaging products and systems did gain competitive advantages and developed their business, independently of what became possible later.

The coming out of the hybrid SaaS model

The current controversy that considers SaaS as mutually exclusive with On Premise is, in my view, more related to the current state of technology, than to business or functional issues.

Clearly, if On Demand applications have to be developed and deployed on entirely different platforms and technologies (RIA and multi-tenant) than On Premise applications (Windows and JEE or .NET), then it is difficult, cumbersome and costly to support both.

 The topic is not a theoretical issue – I consider it the critical enabler for the growth of SaaS. The majority of ISVs are facing a tough challenge when it comes to offering SaaS as they and their customers are looking to cut costs, yet to offer a SaaS portfolio an ISV is faced with a potentially large upfront investment needed to offer a SaaS version of their products. I will expand on the ISV challenge in a separate post.

 That is not a pipe dream – the first application platforms that supported this proposition (Magic Software’s uniPaaS) hit the market almost a year ago, and just recently PaaS provider Longjump announced an On-premise version of their PaaS. There’s even persistent speculation that Force.com would follow suite.Clearly, on-demand business requires a different business approach than on-premise – but I view it rather as a super-set than a mutually exclusive path. And as we see in the SaaS integration business, many vendors offer a SaaS pricing models to on-premise installs – and doing so for applications should not be much different (assuming customers provide a compliant infrastructure and operate it).

 Now, consider the proposition in which the same application platform (and consequently application) supports various deployment modes (single and multi tenancy, Fat, Browser or RIA client). The Client appliance aspect becomes immaterial. A software vendor using such a platform can unify its development and support cycles and have a single cycle of updates and upgrades. The SaaS hosting center (and not necessarily only one) becomes yet another “on premise” customer, hopefully with many more users than a “regular” on premise customer. And customers have the power of choice and can evolve and migrate their software usage in accordance with the evolving business requirements.