Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ahead in the Clouds

1911 Ford Model T

Once upon a time, Henry Ford said that cars could come in “whatever color you wanted, as long as it is black”. Then along came Harley Earl of GM who tapped into a nascent consumer demand and created a wider expectation for making annual design changes that accelerated GM’s dominance of the automotive market. (Well, for a few decades, anyway.)

Similarly, there was a time among established software developers (and users) when cloud computing (aka, Software as a Service, or SaaS) was viewed as too risky, too unstable, too limited in its feature set to ever truly replace local desktop software installations, excepting perhaps for CRM applications.

Today as WiFi/WiMax and general connectivity become increasingly ubiquitous, that desired connectivity is further leveraged by smartphones, net-reliant hardware and similar tools to make great inroads in market share. Laptops outsell desktops. The handset war (iPhone, Palm Pre and Blackberry Bold) is the new Coke and Pepsi, each phone the supposed savior of their respective companies. All this is driving a new expectation among the broader public for ubiquitous connectivity regardless of time, place or device. (Woah, déjà vous: I think I typed that on a PowerPoint slide back in 2001 regarding Unified Communications.)

Take note: The desire for always-on connectivity isn’t the driver – that was an assumed trend as early as 1998 – as much as it is an enabler. The real driver is the community of data and applications that the Web represents.

More proof: Microsoft Money, a desktop-based financial management package that had Microsoft power behind it and once enjoyed first-mover advantage, has been shelved by the Redmond behemoth, as they recognize the customer’s demand for integration and collaboration available with the SaaS models used by Intuit and Mint, among dozens of others – including their own MSN Money service. In rare candor, Microsoft states: “With banks, brokerage firms and Web sites now providing a range of options for managing personal finances, the consumer need for Microsoft Money Plus has changed.”

Note that Microsoft addresses the cloud not for its constant availability, but for the benefit of integration with the complementary applications, vendors and informational websites (“…banks, brokerage firms, and Web sites…”) that are facilitated through the web, and specifically, the collaboration that is common to Web 2.0. Intuit simply gets that the user experience matters, online and offline, and has always has outperformed Microsoft... nothing new for those of us tethered to their Office applications.

Web 2.0 is not just a curiosity or new marketing tool, but has now matured into a critical element of product development – today, mainly for software vendors – but tomorrow, perhaps also for manufacturing concerns. Like the new GM?

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