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.