UK business applications stagger towards the cloud

I spent today evaluating several competing vertical applications for a small business working in a particular niche – I am not going to identify it or the vendors involved. The market is formed by a number of companies which have been serving the market for some years, and which have Windows applications born in the desktop era and still being maintained and enhanced, plus some newer companies which have entered the market more recently with web-based solutions.

Several things interested me. The desktop applications seemed to suffer from all the bad habits of application development before design for usability became fashionable, and I saw forms with a myriad of fields and controls, each one no doubt satisfying a feature request, but forming a confusing and ugly user interface when put together. The web applications were not great, but seemed more usable, because a web UI encourages a simpler page-based approach.

Next, I noticed that the companies providing desktop applications talking to on-premise servers had found a significant number of their customers asking for a web-hosted option, but were having difficulty fulfilling the request. Typically they adopted a remote application approach using something like Citrix XenApp, so that they could continue to use their desktop software. In this type of solution, a desktop application runs on a remote machine but its user interface is displayed on the user’s desktop. It is a clever solution, but it is really a desktop/web hybrid and tends to be less convenient than a true web application. I felt that they needed to discard their desktop legacy and start again, but of course that is easier said than done when you have an existing application widely deployed, and limited development resources.

Even so, my instinct is to be wary of vendors who call desktop applications served by XenApp or the like cloud computing.

Finally, there was friction around integrating with Outlook and Exchange. Most users have Microsoft Office and use Outlook and Exchange for email, calendar and tasks. The vendors with web application found their users demanding integration, but it is not easy to do this seamlessly and we saw a number of imperfect attempts at synchronisation. The vendors with desktop applications had an easier task, except when these were repurposed as remote applications on a hosted service. In that scenario the vendors insisted that customers also use their hosted Exchange, so they could make it work. In other words, customers have to build almost their entire IT infrastructure around the requirements of this single application.

It was all rather unsatisfactory. The move towards the cloud is real, but in this particular small industry sector it seems slow and painful.

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8 comments to UK business applications stagger towards the cloud

  • Tom Conlon

    Tim, the one thing not mentioned is that although the push to the cloud started many years ago, webapps are still clunky, painful and unsatisfactory to use – even bleeding edges ones.

    It would be very interesting to know how much time and money has been spent over the last 10 years in attempting to give users bright shiny webapps when (IMO) the technology and infrastructure was simply not able to deliver (it is as interesting to see exactly when this is achieved).

    Things are improving but the push to rich clients and the need to store more on the clients (plus match the speed of responsiveness of desktop apps) show the shortcomings and also how important changes can take place very quickly.

    In addition to these shifts, it sometimes feels we are in la-la land with the vast number of languages and frameworks to choose from (although those with smart money may be betting on the tower of babel being built on server AND client-side javascript!).

    IMO both are needed for the foreseeable future. How long? who knows, but companies going headlong into relying on new web-based versions of their business-critical internal systems – mainly because everyone else seems to be doing it – may be making a big error of judgement and stand to lose any competitive edge they had prior.
    Tom

  • tim

    Thanks for the comment Tom.

    webapps are still clunky, painful and unsatisfactory to use – even bleeding edges ones.

    Interesting point. But is it true? Do you include things like Adobe AIR and Microsoft Silverlight in-browser or out-of-browser apps in that assessment? I look at something like Adobe’s Project Rome and wonder if there is any real limitation on what can be done as a cloud app. I’d be interested in examples though.

    Tim

  • I’m helping an organisation move away from DabbleDB and looking into the alternatives. A couple are Flash based and look quite slick. One looks a bit like Access (which itself looks clunky these days) and one has its own interface convention. That’s not even AIR or out of browser either.

    Mind you, I haven’t used them in any great depth yet.

  • IMHO, Internet browser was designed to browse the Internet. With very few exceptions, every time I try a new web browser based app, I have that wrong feeling of being made to use a knife to turn the screw just because knives are more generic and can be easily found everywhere. Tim, I don’t know about Silverlight or Adobe AIR, I am talking about the general kind of UI we can find everywhere. To take an example that everyone can see, compare Yahoo Groups with desktop newsgroup reader integrated in Windows Mail. After using windows news reader for a while I just can not use yahoo Groups, so ugly it does everything.

    I had a desktop system which my customers where very happy about. When I offered them the same thing in browser (I did all the best I could using AJAX and other tricks) they said “you know what, our occasional users who connect twice a day from remote locations, perhaps they will like it, but for our intense 8 hours a day use, please return us our desktop thing!”

    And then I made a native desktop client connecting to the code hosted on the app-server using xml/http, and you know what, now everybody is happy! Customers are happy because they do not even notice the change – it is the same desktop UI and I am happy because the code is on the server and app is served as a service. And I can hear what the opponents will say – now you have to install things on the client. My client app is a single 3MB exececutable which updates itself as needed. Use the screwdriver :)

  • Web apps are “clunky,” Tom? When I compare GMail and Outlook/Exchange, two apps which I use day in and day out, it’s not the web app which seems clunky. You might as well say, “clunky apps are clunky.”

  • I’m really happy to see this issue highlighted. Using virtualisation technology to move a desktop application into the cloud is problematic; virtualisation comes at a price and (as you rightly point out) integration with other corporate systems is difficult unless you host everything. As you know, one of the drivers behind our development of uniPaaS and iBOLT has been enabling ISVs to deploy their applications to whatever platforms they choose: on-premise, to mobile or in the cloud. We see that customers nearly all sectors wanting the ability to choose between hosted or on-premise solutions and vendors need to find smarter ways to meet that demand.

    Why not take a look http://www.magicsoftware.com or better still, pre-register for uniPaaS Jet, our full, free single-user application platform http://web.magicsoftware.com/coming-soon-unipaas-jet–free-single-user-edition-application-platform/

  • Tom Conlon

    @Tim
    No, I’m not including AIR and Silverlight in that assessment as my experience is very limited. Mainly talking browser-based solutions.

    @Craig
    Interesting as these are precisely the two email clients I also use in the majority of my day. Gmail, provided by one of the most technically-advanced (and wealthy) companies should be a cutting-edge example and is actually a case in point.

    For example, I really appreciate the convenience, some aspects of threaded conversations and ditto for search features. However, here are just some quick examples off the top of my head of the opposite:
    1. Spending inordinate amount of navigating through folder messages/search results.
    2. Being unable to simply forward more than 1 msg at a time.
    3. Labels instead of folders. Seems a good idea but working with them within the UI (esp. the psuedo-folder structure using label\sub-label) is definitely ‘clunky’.
    4. Threaded conversations can be very confusing and more that once I have forwarded a msg with hidden ‘quoted text’ midway up the thread that I rather wish I hadn’t.
    5. Even with 50mb Virgin XL package I experience ‘Loading…’ delays.
    6. The UI is not attractive.

    Tom

  • Tom, none of your criticisms are intrinsic to web apps. You just have features in GMail you don’t like, which is fine, but of course happens in non-web apps, too. People sometimes assert that performance problems are more common in web apps, except that GMail is consistently faster than Outlook for most tasks, and doesn’t load down my machine with dozens of threads and thousands of open handles (no exaggeration at all). GMail, in Chrome, uses less than half the client memory of Outlook, as well. Outlook’s performance problems, while improved somewhat in recent versions, are still so bad that they actually slow down other applications on the same machine, something I’ve never seen happen with GMail.

    And of course Outlook has its own, designed-in annoyances: I don’t like the fact that Outlook makes me have to remember to rename MSI file extensions before e-mailing them to my coworkers, because it presumes they are too stupid to discern between smoke builds of our production apps and Trojan horses from senders unknown. Its labyrinth of user options dialogs are like a case study in confusing UIs.

    Outlook doesn’t annoy us like this because it’s a desktop app instead of a web app; it annoys us because it’s clunkily designed. GMail isn’t perfect, to be sure, but I find it less clunky than Outlook on most measures.