Category Archives: Desktop Apps

Software Abundance in a Downturn

The term “get” is a journalism (remember that?) term for getting hard-to-get interviews. And so we’re jealous once more about one of RedMonk/Michael Cote’s latest gets, Grady Booch at last month’s Rational Software Conference.

In a rambling discussion, Booch made an interesting point during his sitdown about software being an abundant resource and how that jibes with the current economic slowdown. Although his eventual conclusion – that it pays to invest in software because it can help you deal with a downturn more effectively (and derive competitive edge) – was not surprising, the rationale was.

It’s that Booch calls software an abundant resource. Using his terms, it’s fungible, flexible; there’s lots of it and lots of developers around; and better yet, it’s not a natural extractive resource subject to zero-sum economics. That’s for the most part true although, unless you’re getting your power off solar, some resource must be consumed to provide the juice to your computer.

Booch referred to Clay Shirkey’s concept that a cognitive surplus now exists as a result of the leisure time freed up by the industrial revolution. He contends that highly accessible, dispersed computing networks have started to harness this cumulative cognitive resource. Exhibit A was his and Martin Wattenberg of IBM’s back of the envelope calculation that Wikipedia alone has provided an outlet for 100 million cumulative hours of collected human thought. That’s a lot of volunteer contribution to what, depending on your viewpoint, is contribution to or organization of human wisdom. Of course other examples are the open source software that floats in the wild like the airborne yeasts that magically transform grains into marvelous Belgian Lambics.

Booch implied that software has become an abundant resource, although he deftly avoided the trap of calling it “free” as that term brings with it plenty of baggage. As pioneers of today’s software industry discovered back in the 1980s, the fact that software come delivered on cheap media (followed today by cheap bandwidth) concealed the human capital value that was represented by it. There are many arguments of what the value of software is today – is it proprietary logic, peace of mind, or is the value of technical support? Regardless of what it is, there is value in software, and it is value that, unlike material goods, is not always directly related to supply and demand.

But of course there is a question as to the supply of software, or more specifically, the supply of minds. Globally this is a non-issue, but in the US the matter of whether there remains a shortage of computer science grads or a shortage of jobs for the few that are coming out of computer science schools is still up for debate.

There are a couple other factors to add to the equation of software abundance.

The first is “free” software; OK, Grady didn’t fall into that rat hole but we will. You can use free stuff like Google Docs to save money on the cost of Microsoft Office, or you can use an open source platform like Linux to avoid the overhead of Windows. Both have their value, but their value is not going to make or break the business fortunes of the company. By nature, free software will be commodity software because everybody can get it, so it confers no strategic advantage to the user.

The second is the cloud. It makes software that is around more readily accessible because, if you’ve got the bandwidth, we’ve got the beer. Your company can implement new software with less of the usual pain because it doesn’t have to do the installation and maintenance itself. Well not totally – it depends on whether your provider is using the SaaS model where they handle all the plumbing or whether you’re using a raw cloud where installation and management is a la carte. But assuming your company is using a SaaS provider or somebody that mediates the ugly cloud, software to respond to your business need is more accessible than ever. As with free or open source, the fact that this is widely available means that the software will be commodity; however, if your company is consuming a business application such as ERP, CRM, MRO, or supply chain management, competitive edge will come in how you configure, integrate and consume that software. That effort will be anything but free.

The bottom line is that Abundant Software is not about the laws of supply and demand. There is plenty and not enough software and software developers to go around. Software is abundant, but not always the right software, or if it is right, it takes effort to make it righter. Similarly, being abundant doesn’t mean that the software that is going to get your company out of the recession is going to be cheap.

UPDATE — Google Docs is no longer free.

Write Once (on the Web), Run Anywhere

The concept, or some might say “markitecture” of Web-Oriented Architecture (WOA) is hardly new, but for some reason, in the past few weeks, debates over WOA vs. SOA have suddenly flared up like a tornado materializing in Kansas. Probably it’s no coincidence that the catharsis was the observation by Burton Group analyst Anne Thomas Manes that “SOA is not working in most organizations” because of a lack of will to share services across organizational silos. Microsoft’s new Live Mesh raises the profile of WOA even further -– more about that in a moment.

What’s interesting is that Manes’ conclusions laid the problem more to culture than technology complexity. But subsequent arguments from the likes of Dana Gardner, who contends that SOA became all too much the end and not the means; or Software AG’s Miko Matsumura and StrikeIron’s David Linthicum who viewed WOA as an onramp to SOA, while TechTarget’s SearchSOA columnist Michael Meehan concluded from interviewing a number of experts that WOA was simply hype and markitecture, or, “an empty suit if you will.”

For the record, we’re struck by the incredible parallels between WOA and Ajax, in that they both stretch common web building blocks in ways that creators never foresaw. Both have similar appeal to web developers, based on the facts that the technologies are already familiar, both rely on a grab bag of poorly structured technologies, with few if any rules governing how you apply them.

Cut to the chase. Like the Democratic primaries, the latest reminder that we just can’t put this WOA vs. SOA debate to rest is Microsoft’s unveiling of Live Mesh. The elevator pitch is that it is Microsoft’s emerging on demand environment enabling you to store and share things between PCs and other kinds of devices like phones (smart and dumb), game stations, PDAs, and other things. We won’t repeat what’s already been reported, but check out Mary Jo Foley who’s got the Top Ten list describing what Live Mesh is, and eWeek’s Daryl Taft, who’s described in detail the underlying development platform.

Live Mesh uses a freebie new technology from Microsoft called FeedSync that makes syndication feeds bi-directional. It surrounds FeedSync with – you guessed it – a webby-oriented development environment. “If you want to live in software and services world, you must start with what works on the web, lowest programming model to be built on open protocols,” explained Abhay Parasnis, Microsoft’s product unit manager for Live Mesh.

So let’s call WOA the lowest common denominator.

Under the hood, Live Mesh’s plumbing runs on raw XML sent over HTTP, using a RESTful programming model for obtaining services, plus the familiar ATOM or RSS feeds that support pubsub communications. Above that, Microsoft provides different paths so .NET, Ajax, and dynamic scripting languages can all write to this platform. This being Microsoft, rendering via WPF and Silverlight are supported as well. OK, if you want Java, AIR, or Flex, better wait for another Mono project.

Live Mesh is intended as a loosely coupled platform in that it supports familiar store & forward and pubsub modes. You might call it a variation of a Services-Oriented Architecture because the services are supposed to be abstracted from whatever device or software platform they are implemented on, but there’s no trace of any web services stack here.

In other words, if you want to write once, run anywhere, Microsoft is telling you to use WOA.

Microsoft: Glasnost or “We Will Bury You?”

ZDNet’s Jason Perlow had some interesting observation upon returning from Microsoft’s Technology Summit last week. For starters, Perlow noted Microsoft’s acknowledgement and implied support for the work that Novell’s Miguel de Icaza and colleagues on the Mono project are directing at porting key Microsoft desktop technologies to Linux. He speculated that Microsoft’s Open Source Lab’s work to achieve interoperability with key open source projects like Samba and Apache is being driven is not only the result of EU directives to open up its interfaces, but also to increase visibility and utilization of Microsoft platforms on open source systems.

But Perlow felt uncomfortable equating these olive branches with Glasnost. “It would be difficult to say that Steve Ballmer is Microsoft’s Mikhail Gorbachev – his patent and intellectual property saber rattling in the past year would seem to put him more firmly in the Nikita Khrushchev shoe-banging ‘We will bury you’ on the podium camp rather than be characterized like the reformative and cuddly Gorby.” Per our observations a couple weeks back at EclipseCon, it looks more like ping pong diplomacy, where Microsoft is testing the waters for a market where open source has gone mainstream.

Eat or Be Eaten

Just before dinner last night, we sat down with several colleagues in a highly informal but on-the-record chat with Ilog CEO Pierre Haren on the first day of Ilog Dialog 2008. Although he phrased it differently, a term he called “Movement Wars,” the message he conveyed was a familiar, but poignant one given the current state of the software market. Coming just ahead of a 3-course meal at a luxurious Palm Springs resort, our takeaway is that to survive in the business, you must eat, move, or get devoured.

It was an appropriate follow up to an interview we conducted with Haren last fall on how western technology companies can thrive in Asia that was published in CBRonline.

The obvious examples he was pointing to included Microsoft, and to a lesser extent, SAP and Oracle. He mentioned that in the typical lifecycle of a software vendor, first you get about a handful of successful references; then you try replicating it into a solution and if you succeed, you get to about 20 – 30 successful accounts. That’s the time you have to either start thinking of specializing your solution for vertical sectors or other specialized sectors of the market, or you must change your role and move on.

He gave the example of optimization, a market where Ilog has played an OEM role with players like i2, but is now starting to push its own independent brand. It was initially a custom development market, then i2 commercialized it. And once it became a billion dollar market, SAP and Oracle acted as “bottom fishers” in pushing i2 (which was busily shooting itself in the abdomen anyway) back into a corner where it barely breathes.

Haren then recalled a talk delivered by Steve Ballmer in front of an audience of French software vendors. With vivid memory, he noted the number of bodyguards that surrounded Ballmer, who is not exactly physically diminutive in physical stature himself. “What were they worrying about? That some disgruntled customer who discovered a bug in Excel would go knife him?”

Ballmer’s message was, in effect, if a market gets big enough, that Microsoft would move in (“crush you” was Haren’s, but probably not Ballmer’s term) and that you as software vendor, would have to cultivate some niche and deepen it to survive once Microsoft gets in your face.

This of course comes on the heels of Ilog’s recent announcement of a new set of offerings that natively tie in with the forthcoming BizTalk Server “6″ (eventually to be officially branded 2008 or 2009), Office 2007, and the latest version of the .NET framework. Echoing words that we heard from Ballmer himself at Sand Hill Group’s Software 2007 conference last spring, it’s the vision of Office Business Applications, of which the best known example the joint Microsoft/SAP Duet offering.

While knocking the previous BizTalk 2006 as “crap” (this was a candid discussion), he claimed that with BizTalk 2008 and the emerging Oslo initiative, that Microsoft is going to get enterprise apps, and specifically, BPM, right this time. Of course to anyone who’s watched Microsoft over the years, the pattern is familiar: they get it down by version 3.0.

And, while nobody (yours truly included) likes the prospect of having to move onto yet another new Office file format (Office 97, anybody???), Haren pointed out that this time it’s different. “With XML, added to the new file format, you can turn Word into a generic GUI for any business application with elements that are updated in real-time. You have a form that you fill with structured elements, where you can imbed rules.”

Of course, the idea of a dynamic document took us back to the old Interleaf notion of “Active Documents,” where with millions of dollars of custom programming, your documents too could be populated live by Oracle databases. That was back in 1994, but this being 2008, and the fact that there’s XML, it should hopefully be a bit cheaper on this go round – that is if you don’t mind the hassles of conversion or coexistence with the new .docx file format.

(By the way, while we’re on the topic of Microsoft file formats, frequent blogger and developer Joel Spolsky last week gave a great explanation on while those Office file formats are so bloated.)

But back to the saga of the African Veld. Just as Ilog gets cozy as an early member of Microsoft’s Business Process Alliance, it too must think about moving on, because at some point, Microsoft is likely to do to business rules what it previously did with OLAP.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things, Haren believes that Google is the first challenger to emerge that might make a tidy meal of Microsoft itself. Not of course, that that is anything we haven’t heard before, except for the fact that it follows in the same breath his grand expectations for Microsoft as enterprise applications platform. (And, as a recent post from Josh Greenbaum confirmed, Google itself still doesn’t get the enterprise apps market.)

When we asked Haren about how he can be so bullish and cautious, he explained that in the next wave of the market, success on the enterprise side may not be enough to keep a company from becoming history.

Are SAP and Oracle listening?

How We Work

Project managers are all too aware of Murphy’s Law – just about the only certainty when you plan out a succession of events or critical paths is that you can usually never be 100% certain that a task will get finished by the promised date. You can often be pretty sure, but reality is never 100%.

Yet, most project management tools take delivery dates as givens, and when it comes to fudge factors, they are typically only applied at the aggregate level, such as that the overall certainty that a specific project will get done by a certain date is 80%. But when you get closer to the task level and speak with the people who are intimately involved, they can often give you a pretty accurate picture as to their chances of meeting specific deadlines.

Of curse, the only problem with all that is that corporate culture tends to discourage such bouts of realism. It is difficult for line employees to stand up and state for the record that management’s deadline is not realistic.

Over 20 years ago, Eliyahu Goldratt codified the idea of factoring in constraints when it came to complex scheduling problems in a manufacturing plan. He had the originality to write up his idea, not in a doctoral thesis, but in the form of a bad dime store novel that was so bad, that it got attention. His ideas were later incorporated into advanced scheduling products from i2 and a host of other software providers, and by Realization Technologies for management of multiple projects. And he has formed an institute to promote his work.

Today at the Demo 2008 conference, LiquidPlanner is going to take the wraps off a product that applies a similar idea, not at factory managers, but at the poor guy who has to schedule projects. It does so with a SaaS-based offering (what new offering isn’t based on Software as a Service these days?). It enables individuals to enter the degree of probability that shows how confident they are that they can finish a project with a given period of time. OK, it doesn’t ask you to commit as to whether you are 65% or 75% certain that you’ll make a certain date, but instead asks you to enter date ranges. Given the ranges that different people assign to different tasks. LiquidPlanner then assigns probabilities based on all the ranges that people enter.

CEO Charles Seybold uses the fashionable term “social computing” to show how his company’s tool munges up everybody’s estimates to come out with an aggregate estimate of when a project will get done, based on ranges for the consistent tasks.

What’s potentially even more interesting is that LiquidPlanner also comes with a data warehouse, so you can start comparing results over time to see what types of tasks with similar levels fo resources get completed how fast, and how close to estimate. We’re sure that there are potentially a million and one ways to slice and dice the data to get a realistic idea of how your organization actually executes.

We’ve seen an early version of the tool that’s being unveiled at Demo today – it’s pretty cool although it’s still a bit too text heavy to make it the easy to use tool that shows you in glance just how you’re doing. But that’s just a tweak (adding a few basic dials or colored bar charts would certainly do the trick).

What’s kind of funny is that by itself, LiquidPlanner’s innovation doesn’t sound that dramatic – generating a probability based on date ranges that people enter. You’d think that somebody would have thought of this before, but in tools like Microsoft Project, they haven’t.

Hatfields and McCoys: The Sequel

Whether you like it or not, Microsoft Office remains the de facto standard office desktop in the developed world. Meanwhile, Adobe’s PDF format has emerged as de facto standard for print and archival of online documents. Microsoft accomplished it through bundling with the ubiquitous Windows desktop. Adobe did so through by freely publishing the PDF API.

So if you’re a Crystal Reports user, you can readily export the result to Word or PDF. If your company uses SAP, you can store and tag forms in PDF.

And if you use OpenOffice, the open source alternative to Microsoft that’s freely downloadable from OpenOffice.org, you can perform the entire conversion directly without ever leaving the Microsoft Office document format. That’s because OpenOffice can read and edit Microsoft formats. While OpenOffice occasionally chokes on highly complex files, 80 – 90% of the time, this freebie works just fine.

Given the huge presence of the .doc and PDF formats, wouldn’t it just make sense for Microsoft to finally bite the bullet and put the save-to-PDF feature in Office itself? Evidently, most Microsoft customers thought so, because they asked Microsoft to add PDF conversion to Office 12.

But wait.

Evidently there’s an exception to Adobe’s policy. When Microsoft decided to join the rest of the world, Adobe threatened a lawsuit. While it’s perfectly OK any other software vendor to add PDF support without charge, Adobe insisted Microsoft charge a separate fee.

Instead of viewing this as a potential win-win, Adobe took a more 1990ish view of this being a zero-sum game: Microsoft bundles PDF convert, Adobe loses Acrobat sales. Forget the fact that with PDF conversion already freely available elsewhere, the toothpaste has already spilled out.

Adobe’s position is not only hypocritical, but incredibly shortsighted, because you would think that expanding the accessibility of PDF would in the long run broaden its potential desktop publishing franchise.

Admittedly, Adobe has good reason for playing cautious. If your feature gets bundled with a popular platform, like Office, Windows, or Visual Studio, your company gets great exposure, but Microsoft also gets to learn your product segment. That worked well for Crystal Reports (now part of Business Objects), but not so great for Sybase.

But the Macromedia side of Adobe has plenty of Microsoft experience. Until recently, its Flash player was Internet Explorer’s only plug-in. Thanks to IE’s dominance, Flash became the de facto standard for rich media rendering on the web. And that provided the linchpin for Adobe’s rich web client platform Flex. Minus the bundling, Flash would be about as well known as, say, OpenLazslo (remember them? Of course you don’t, but by the way, they also bundle Flash).

Microsoft has reportedly offered to renew bundling of Flash and its companion Shockwave software with Windows Vista. Maybe they could have gone one better by also offering to bundle the Flex framework alongside Microsoft’s competing Vista-based offering as well.

At this point, Microsoft has dropped plans for what would have been a sensible addition to Office 12. But to our reckoning, we can’t exactly see what Adobe gained from all this. Unless they’re just trying to remind us that PDF is just another proprietary technology.

Pie in the Sky

A truism of today’s IT investment climate is that there is little appetite for conducting forklift replacements of anything. Just as there was talk of closing the Patent Office in 1890 because all the inventions had been invented, a similar outlook persists with enterprise software today because, if you didn’t need to replace it in year 2000, you probably won’t need to now.

So what do you make of somebody trying to sell you on replacing your email system? What kind of ROI or competitive advantage could you get by replacing the it?

Recently, an open source startup, Zimbra, introduced a new system that demonstrated what you could do if you merged the email client with the web. We eventually caught up with Scott Dietzen, the same guy that introduced WebLogic, who heads the new venture.

We first crossed paths with Dietzen back at Java One in 1997, where his startup demonstrated one of the first appservers based on technology that would eventually become J2EE. A riverboat gamble, but the right one. Dietzen’s company was eventually acquired by BEA, whose technology became synonymous with Java until IBM challenged it.

There’s an indirect parallel between what Dietzen & Co. demonstrated back in 1997 and what he’s hawking now.

If you recall, when Java first came out, the excitement was around Java applets, because they could enrich static web browsers with animation and interactivity. Not surprisingly, at that Java One, the crowds thronged booths showing dancing letters. Consequently, we had plenty of quality time at Dietzen’s booth to learn about server-side Java, which eventually proved the real value proposition.

This time around, the hype around Zimbra was again the rich client, which uses Ajax technology. Instead of a static email, mouse around an address, and a Google map appears. Or move over a customer name, and a summary of their CRM file and your next scheduled meeting with them pops up.

By contrast, current email systems require you to toggle back and forth between email, the web, and whatever application you’re running to view or insert data. But with the Zimbra client, it’s all accomplished by embedded web services.

According to Dietzen, most corporate users spend roughly 40% of their time in email. But is the resulting improvement to productivity ample justification for dumping the old email system?

Turns out that, like Java circa 1997, the real value is on the server, not the client. Zimbra’s server taps the inherent efficiencies of the Linux file system and the MySQL database to deliver today what Microsoft promises with the long-delayed WinFS file system – if it ever comes out.

With Zimbra, you could search all instances of email on a specific topic across everybody in the company, see who received which file attachments and when, and so on. Not a bad trick to have the next time the SOX auditors show up.

But is the email market actually up for grabs? Email may be the system we love to hate, but it’s hard to imagine that organizations would be willing to bear the disruption because the new technology is slick. Maybe if your company still uses the mainframe for email, or you need better audit trails because one of your CxOs just got indicted.

Still we can’t totally dismiss Dietzen’s folly out of hand.

Zimbra’s using viral open source strategy to seep inside the enterprise. It must eke out enough modest victories, plus a mainframe conversion here or there, to keep the money patient.

The inflection point could happen once Microsoft finally debuts its long-awaited successor to Exchange.

Not Your Father’s Thin Client

Please excuse us if we’re a bit jaded to the latest hype over non-Microsoft clients. The emergence of Linux and the fact that Microsoft Office has not yet secured a stranglehold in fast growing regions like China and India suggests that some form of Linux desktop may actually prove a viable alternative for what Apple used to call “the rest of us.”

But displacing the existing base of Microsoft Office in developed economies? With Office the de facto standard of editable business content, moving to non-Microsoft versions hasn’t been worth the inconvenience of format translation.

So our attention was piqued when IBM threw its hat into the ring, because their focus was not exactly about replacing Microsoft Office. IBM’s new Lotus Workplace products do offer some modest productivity tools, useful largely for read-only work. And, according to Michael Rhodin, who helped spearhead much of the new offering, Sarbanes Oxley might be prodding companies to take another look at the traditional Microsoft Office model of scattered documents on every desktop. Well maybe.

But more importantly, IBM Lotus Workplace is about managing client side costs. Not that this is anything new, we’ve seen lots of asset management, automated software delivery, locked-down desktop, and anorexic client approaches over the years. In the end, people don’t like giving up the perception of freedom that the fat desktop has given them. IBM’s initiative differs in that it takes an idea that is popular — the enterprise portal, which personalizes information delivery — to software distribution and life cycle management, which personalizes functionality.

It does so by combining Lotus collaboration, WebSphere Portal, and Tivoli software distribution and identity management into a server-based provisioning engine with industrial strength technology. The engine is designed to provision all the goodies dynamically, which is a technical way of saying that IBM has finally come up with The On Demand client. Intriguing, yes, but dependence on the network to make this happen in real time tells us that IBM has lots of tweaking ahead of it.

Alright Already

Today, no vendor would be caught dead labeling its technology proprietary. Yet, getting the balance right has always been a perennial challenge. If you don’t offer something that’s unique, why would anyone buy your product?

Although at first glance Linux tears that argument to shreds, on closer examination, it reaffirms the value of uniqueness. Customers buy distributions from Red Hat or SuSE because they arbitrate and support what would otherwise be a chaotic update process.

Which brings us to the matter of why doesn’t Sun open source Java. Sun has always competed on “open” standards. It won the workstation wars because it made its file system available to anybody, leading NFS to become a UNIX standard. And it was the dot in dot com because UNIX servers were more “open” than mainframes, drawing more third party software (OK, they were also more scalable than Windows). Significantly, Java triumphed on the server for many of the same reasons.

Yet Sun has always walked a tightrope with Java. They created the Java Community Process (JCP) that was open to any Java licensee, but governed by Sun. With the latest version of the JCP, Sun is striving to open up the process further. It wasn’t that Sun was trying to monopolize Java, the reality was that they never knew where to let go. Ironically, while Sun has continued to control Java, so far it’s made little money from it. Yet.

So we’re glad to hear that Sun is seriously considering open sourcing Java. Yes, there are issues with compliance testing to iron out. But our response is, why not, what have you got to lose? More than getting on the “right side” of the issue, open sourcing would further knock down barriers to individual developers improving Java. It won’t mean anarchy either. Look at the most popular open source technologies — Linux, the Apache webserver, the Tomcat Java servlet container. They’re all governed by a single person or organizational entity.

It’s interesting that as these discussions are proceeding, Sun might be on the verge of finally making real money from its invention. Having recently announced agreements with China and several other countries to sell the Java Desktop System, we believe Sun has a unique opportunity to penetrate developing nations where (1) Microsoft Office has not yet saturated the market, and (2) demand exists for cheaper alternatives. Significantly, whether the Java Desktop System succeeds will have nothing to do with who controls or has access to the underlying Java spec.