I Told you I Was Sick
Spike Milligan

Software as a Service. Does it have a future? A question I’m trying to answer as my Virgin train lurches uncertainly on its way home from a seminar in Birmingham.

You’ve heard the sad story. Once upon a time it was ASP (Applications Service Provision) but nobody really wanted it, understood it or could afford it. Faced with its own obituary, it then became xSP or Managed Services (MSP), fractionally more attractive, as an acronym but hard-pressed to find customers who were prepared to take the risk or believe the promises being made for it.

Today, what was once ASP, is becoming increasingly mixed in with Web Services. Where one starts and another ends, remains a gray area for the analysts. ASP, you remember, started as a really clever way of delivering the popular and heavier, Office-type applications, to a thin client over an Internet or VPN connection. It was really Citrix by another name and explains why the company in conjunction with Microsoft, were seen as the driving forces behind the idea. The trouble of course was at the time, that the communications wasn’t up to the task and the sheer cost of setting up the infrastructure, invariably made applications delivery more expensive for the customer than simply buying software licenses. For the ASPs it was rather like building a new Disney theme park in the Midlands , relying on the rail network, with trains like the one I’m sitting in, to bring the customers, the last mile, to the door. It’s arguably cheaper and more comfortable to fly directly to Florida.

Software as a service is now becoming much more about smart web-enabled applications, as it should have been in the first place. True, the likes of Telewest are now in the business with partners such as 7Global and those big Microsoft Office and messaging applications can be provided by the services such as Blue Yonder. There are however many more examples of true web-enabled applications appearing from ISV’s, my favourite being Equology, the eCommerce development and web hosting service for small businesses which I use for my own web site.

ASP has changed, it’s grown up but very few people have noticed and are even prepared to find out, given the industry’s dismal track record for reliability. In this country, cheap broadband isn’t just good for the home user; it’s likely to have a major impact on the managed service market in the small business sector. Fast reliable access to component applications is going to make companies more confident about the ASP/xSP model.

The future will be one of mixed applications. Some will be local and others will be distributed along ASP lines. Today you don’t think twice over using a resource such as Streetmap.co.uk over the Web and perhaps Office from your company server. Over time, you’ll find yourself mixing and matching applications depending on how frequently they are needed and how heavy the use might be. Some will be more cost effective as ‘Pay per view’ apps, a market that Microsoft is developing through .Net, others will be rented from ASP/xSPs and the remainder will be locally available.

In the end, ASP will be less about technology and more about choice. While the acronym may be tired, the process behind it is gradually creeping into the way we work and before long, we’ll take for granted, an idea that hundreds of millions of wasted vendor marketing money could never achieve.


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