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Software as a Service: The Last Mile


Greasemonkey Delete Script

Originally uploaded by sogrady.

The recent history of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) serves in some capacity as a cautionary tale of the burden of hype. You may remember the halcyon days from the height of the dot com boom where companies large and small – with even Microsoft getting in on the act – spoke in not so hushed tones of the imminent death of shrinkwrapped software, with the alternative of “renting” applications delivered in a network context at a (theoretically) lower cost.

There was just one catch: companies balked at the idea – usually pitched by so-called Application Service Providers (ASPs) – big time. Further, many found the very notion itself abhorrent. Most of the major technology players more or less shelved the idea – at least for the enterprise – and many of the smaller firms simply disappeared (I still remember doing an evaluation of Iconomy).

We could dissect the reasons for this vendor/customer disconnect for days, but from where I sit a few of the major showstoppers were the relative paucity of broadband connections, immature (or worse, inelegantly ported) application sets that led to poor performance, and a enterprise inability to accept the idea conceptually. Even for more open minded enterprises, however, that could accept those limitations or weren’t bound by them, there were two major concerns:

1. Allowing mission critical, highly sensitive data to be stored and accessed on systems outside the firewall
2. The inability to customize the application

Fast forward a few years to the present day, and the climate is very different. Night and day different. As is often the case, it now seems that SaaS may have been overhyped, but undervalued. Salesforce.com is growing apace, and we’re seeing the expansion of the model into new traditional application categories like ERP with Intacct (whose application is PHP based, BTW).

Many of the concerns, be they broadband access or immature application sets have been satisfactorily addressed, and the number of businesses that trust their customer data (and what data is more precious?) to Salesforce would indicate that the comfort level with storing information externally is at least less of a concern than it once was. But nonetheless, one major objection remained: the ability to customize the application.

As any systems integrator can tell you, enterprises love to customize their applications. Live for it, in fact. Despite dire warnings of the difficulty in maintaining or upgraded heavily tweaked applications down the line, the committee/consensus based approach used by just about every management or systems consultant virtually guarantees that an enterprise will bend the software to its unique needs rather than adhere as closely as possible to standard workflows and processes. There are exceptions to this of course – SAP implementations being one partial example – but for those used to molding packaged applications into their desired form, SaaS was a tough sell.

The difficulty lies in the approach: the SaaS approach is predicated on economies of scale, in that you design an application and deliver it via the network to many customers. Every customer, in theory, works off the same version, just with a different dataset. It has inherent advantages in feature rollout and ongoing maintenance, but typically offers little in the way of customization. For enterprise buyers long accustomed to having their packaged applications behave the way they want them to, rather than one size fits all, this is a negative.

That, however, may be changing as Jon Udell beat me to pointing out (love the title, BTW, Jon). With a little Firefox extension called Greasemonkey (mentioned previously here), we’re beginning to see the possibility for a slight reversal of this trend. Jon talks about a extension script here that allows for the introduction of persistent searches in a Virtual Folder like box into Google’s Gmail application. Via Coté, I stumbled across another Gmail Greasemonkey script that allows for the introduction of a long wished for “Delete” button (pictured).

Why are these minor UI alterations to a consumer based (and still invitation only) webmail system important? Because they indicate that web applications – and thus SaaS – may in fact be more malleable than we all believed. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is a debate for another time (although from the look of the abstract here, Forrester’s missing the potential benefits and focusing on the drawbacks), but either way I think we may be getting closer to chewing up SaaS’s last mile. And who’s showing us the way? Google? IBM? Microsoft? Sun? Nope. A 16kb extension called Greasemonkey.

Update: Simon Willison takes Forrester to task for the report here.

Update 2: Jeremy pointed out that in one instance, I was using extension when I should have been using script. Thanks, Jeremy.

Categories: Emerging Technologies.

  • http://www.ethinksystems.com/blog JP Morgenthal

    Ahh, no industry does more to destroy good names than the software industry. Your use of the term Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is correct in terms of industry understanding–it is the ASP model. However, I have been using this term in talks on SOA to differentiate things running in an SOA from Web Services.

    We've boxed ourselves in on this one. If we say services, people naturally assume we're talking about Web Services, which is not always the case. In an SOA, ANY software that provides a stateless service in a loosely-coupled way is a service, and hence, it is Software-as-a-Service.

    Let's think a little wider focus on this one and realize that software-as-a-service can be running inside the enterprise. Within a couple of years, SAP will be operating purely as Software-as-a-Service within the organization. Saas is dead (or not dead as you state above) only if you look at SaaS as the group of applications that you rent.

    However, I say that SaaS is a much wider net that has yet to even be explored.

  • http://www.redmonk.com/sogrady sogrady

    interesting JP, i haven't heard it used in that context all that much. but put it this way: i'm certainly not wedded to SaaS. if we all want to agree to call it something else, i'm game. whatever works.

  • http://dunck.us/anabasis/ Jeremy Dunck

    Thanks for the kind mention, Stephen.

    It's up to 19kb in the latest version.

    For clarity, Greasemonkey is a Firefox extension, but the scripts a user chooses to install for Greasemonkey are called "user scripts".

    And don't miss the burgeoning directory here: http://dunck.us/collab/GreaseMonkeyUserScripts

  • http://www.redmonk.com/sogrady sogrady

    hey jeremy,

    no problem. i'm enjoying the virtual cornucopia of scripts, and have found literally a dozen that are of moderate to significant utility.

    Udell's right. this is going to explode.

  • Jay Brooks

    Software as a service through an ASP provides many benefits, like: saves money, saves time, better customer service, faster deployments, faster upgrades or changes, and increased sales for ISV's. Coaxis ASP specializes in this this service. Visit there website at http://www.coaxis-asp.net or call us at 850-219-5731.

  • Mobile O/X

    The ASP or SaaS model is truly becoming more flexible and useful. I was wondering if there are any companies out there that do more than just allow you to modify existing applications but actually allow you to upload your own custom or 3rd party applications.