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If Everything Can Be Delivered by SaaS, How Many Desktop Applications Would a User Still Need?

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Francis Carden: If everything can be delivered by SaaS, how many desktop applications would a user still need, and what would they be?

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  • Firstlt, I dont believe everything can be delivered by SaaS nor should it be. There are a number of solutions that can work well via SaaS and even work well for medium sized businesses. However, you will always need certain applications on the desktop because they are more secure, or provide a better user experience.

    For me, anything that holds sensitive data has to be kept in house (though nothing wrong with thin client experiences, especially with Silverlight). So basically, I havent answered the question....

  • To respond to a question with a question: what is the value of desktop applications, and does SaaS really cover this?

    My definition of a desktop application is one that can run standalone and is designed to allow complex, rich interactions from the end user to achieve whatever result - write a document, edit a spreadsheet, build a presentation, edit a podcast, develop software in an IDE, or whatever. Independent of the technology, the nature of a desktop app for me is the constant level and variety of user input involved.

    If we make the assumption that a SaaS service is managed and at least partially hosted centrally, the question is whether SaaS can provide the richness required for 'input oriented' user applications? I think the question partly depends on whether you classify applications built on the rich Internet technologies like Adobe Air and Microsoft Silverlight as desktop applications or hosted apps or a bit of both.

    The Air/Silverlight framework-based tools allow greater management of the installed component of desktop applications, while simplifying the interaction with centralized Internet resources. For desktop applications they may be the key to allowing complex applications not to be restricted by the limitations of the browser and Javascript (though Google will dispute this, and future versions of HTML may help). They also continue to allow SaaS vendors to offer a value managing complex centralized server resources, and push out application updates at a moment's notice.

    For applications that focus all their efforts on the user interaction, with little requirement for complex servers, identifying the SaaS benefit, beyond a rented license model and easy updates is hard for me to identify. Where SaaS offers value is its focus on the services it provides beyond the desktop. What am I thinking? Document and electronic records management as an option behind Google Docs or Zoho would make it more worth employing a SaaS option for desktop tools. Online collaboration alongside these documents (e.g. Google Wave) starts to make more sense than glorified IM, or standalone WebEx. Link your business processes alongside the user documents and straight into the other SaaS services such as your client data in Salesforce.com and for me this is where SaaS offers the true value. Why do you even need a spreadsheet then?

    Do we need desktop apps? Do we need user interaction with stuff? SaaS will deliver the connection of services that SOA never addressed at a user application level. So I don't really believe it matters too much where the application actually runs.

    Phil Ayres

  • A web bandwidth monitor, one that connects to an alternative provider as soon as it senses a problem on your primary connection.

    An intrusion prevention monitor, to ensure your device doesn't get infected with a trojan or other malware.

    That's about it, really ...

  • I agree with Phil....until you have no network connection.

  • The only desktop app I use is MS Office (that will change with the web apps next year) and even that is integrated with my SaaS document management. I also have iTunes but I wish that was SaaS.

    We use hosted exchange, store our files in the cloud, use a SaaS twitter manager, etc.

  • The browser is a key to the success of SaaS. If browser vendors and related third parties continue to add rich features into this contemporary, quasi-industry standard based user interface, then there isn’t much need for any additional software on the desktop. Of course, this assumes that the user is always connected to the Internet. (Phil’s “web bandwidth monitor? could be embedded into the browser.) If not, then software that permits a user to work “off-of-the-grid? would be required. For example, Google Gears, allows users to store data locally for offline use. Typically, this need is more relevant for a mobile user, who might need to work on a plane or in some remote location with limited and/or poor Internet access. Security is another feature that should reside in the browser and/or offered as cloud-based service. One could assume that malware could penetrate a thin-client architecture, embed itself into calls back to the cloud-based server and then propagate across the cloud. This is similar to Phil’s intrusion prevention monitor idea. It will be interesting to see how the browser evolves in relation to the cloud computing paradigm.

  • Basic productivity suites like Office don't yet make sense on Saas--and may never. I'm going to risk creating a complex spreadsheet online, or a complex graphic? What if I want to noodle on it offline? The collaborative requirements of many of these basic apps are minimal.

    But the deeper problem is user customization. Because of the single code base, SaaS apps are naturally constrained in the amount of individual configurability and integration they support.

    We have a basic overview of SaaS configurability & customization strategies on our site at www.lionbridge.com/saas (look in the sidebar on the right), and even a cursory look at this doc shows the limitations.

    The question is, are these limitations inherent or part of the immaturity of the art of SaaS? Might be worthy of a discussion topic on its own. :-)

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