Saturday, December 27, 2008

Decisions, decisions...

Decisions are at the core of everything we do personally and professionally.

Decisions come in all shapes and sizes.. From scheduling an appointment, to deciding on a color, to which projects to undertake or where to invest the money. Some decisions are simple “yes” or “no”, some entail options. Some are unilateral, some require buy-in from others, whether by majority or consensus. Some involve risk and uncertainties and are subject to risk tolerance. Some involve sequences of decisions, and require evaluating each branch separately. Some rely on statistics, others on expert opinions.. Some can be made loosely and others have lots of money and even lives at stake.

Web is an excellent medium for decision-making applications due to their inherently collaborative nature. A few relatively simple decision-making apps have sprung up recently, with some pretty good options, with I’m sure many more to come..

Scheduling decision-making applications are focused on finding mutually agreeable time (setting up appointments, events, etc)

Timebridge and Jifflenow are two examples of such scheduling decision making applications. Both provide a way to coordinate schedules with others using existing calendar solutions.




Idea Management solutions are concerned with democratic system for ranking ideas and suggestions

These tools use among other things the “Digg” approach by allowing others to vote others ideas or suggestions up or down. Some, like Kluster are starting to build in more sophistication by allowing to assign weights and filter on importance criteria.

Apps: Kindling, Kluster, SalesForce Idea Exchange



Workflow system concentrate on getting a decision through a series of check-off’s
Sign-offs are the necessary parts of the workflows. Several tools have recreated the processes involved in getting something signed off on. Instead of having to chase everybody down for a decision, let the software do that for you.

One such tool is Zapproved – it’s a simple, yet effective way to get the sign-off’s you need to push the project forward.



I believe this web application category provides a lot of room for growth and will be one to watch carefully. Now, what will it be, tea or coffee?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

New Features Make LiquidPlanner Faster, Easier, More Efficient

Liquid Planner keeps improving their usability. I got this update from them today..
In case you didn't see my previous post on them, Liquidplanner is the most sophisticated and thought out web-based project management system that has a potential to be MS Project replacement.

If you're a seasoned LiquidPlanner user, you've probably been pining for these features. If you're new to the club, you just might forget you're working in a web browser. In either case, enjoy!

LiquidPlanner - multi-selectMulti-Select - It's finally here! You can now select multiple items and edit, move, or delete them -- and more. Not only does this speed initial project setup, but multi-select improves the speed of day-to-day operations by an order of magnitude.

Email Integration - It's easier than ever to add tasks with our new email integration feature. Enter the task name, owner, and estimate in the subject line of your email and send it to a custom LiquidPlanner email address. Attachments and images will be captured in the collaborate tab. Give it a try!

Right-Click -
Right-click on any item to access to the most common operations in LiquidPlanner, like adding or deleting items, filtering your view, and printing your schedule.

We also added new ways to watch items and rolled out a big batch of improvements to the scheduling engine, printing, virtual members, and more.
New and improved sample projects provide insight into optimal workspace organization. Browse around and check out the new features. As always, we appreciate your feedback.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Do you know your aaS's?

Wondering what all those announcements about cloud computing are all about and how they relate to you? Getting lost in the jargon? MS Azure, EC2, S3, Grid, IaaS, PaaS, SaaS? Don’t worry, you’re not alone! IT industry is notorious for making up acronyms and focusing on themselves when explaining things. I’m getting ready to review some new products that fall into some of the new categories, so wanted to do a post putting things in prospective.


IaaS stands for Infrastructure-as-a-Service. It used to be that to build a web application, the designers needed to worry about which server model to go with (co-location, managed, etc), which hosting provider to go with (affecting the uptime, system reliability and physical security), setting up and maintaining the server software (good Linux system administrators are extremely hard to find), worry about scaling the system past one server (database replication, load balancing, and bunch of other nasty technical stuff). IaaS solves most of those issues by providing a virtual server environment that is automatically scaled and kept up to date. This is a big load off the application provider shoulders, allowing them to focus on the application itself. Solutions in that category are represented by Amazon EC2 (virtual servers), S3 (scalable storage), SimpleDB (scalable database), Rackspace’s Mosso, and newly announced Microsoft Azure.

PaaS stands for Platform-as-a-Service and takes the concept one step further. In addition to providing the basic building blocks (servers, database, storage), platform-as-a-service provides a ready-to-use application environment a developer can use to build their applications. Similar to Microsoft Access and Visual Basic for Applications, by using PaaS, developers can raise their development up a level, creating data collection forms, reports, lists, workflows, and various other applications without as much as installing an application. This creates leverage from the reuse and speed of development angles. Examples of PaaS are SalesForce’s Force, Zoho’s Creator, LongJump, and a few other interesting new entrants such as Wolf Frameworks. I believe this category is the one to watch for the innovations with largest leverage.

Finally, SaaS is an older category that includes any web-based, ready-to-use application like most of the things I've reviewed so far on this blog: CRM, project management, wiki, PIM, or any combination thereof.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Big new Highrise feature: Deals

37 Signals announced a new feature, Deals - which is a welcome addition to an otherwise good "Service CRM" alternative.



Now, deals (or opportunities as they are called in traditional CRM's) are nothing new, but 37 Signal's Highrise CRM does it with style (which is what sets them apart from the traditional CRM's in the first place).

This got me thinking about how exactly does style (usability) affect the technology adoption. I haven't seen much research on this, really; but it strikes me as a critical component, although I've seen systems that were adopted widely where the interface was horrendous. Care to weight in on that? How important is style? Does it become more important as the number of choices for particular functionality increase? (thinking Apple).. Meanwhile I'll dig around for some scholarly papers.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Come to Office 2.0 Conference in SF next week





My apologies for not highlighting this event sooner.

Ismael Ghalimi and other members of Office 2.0 community have been working tirelessly on putting this event together. It's going to be a great display of Office2.0 technologies. I will be there as well so if you want to set up some time to chat, let me know.

The event is on September 3-5 in San Francisco (I know, it's coming up quick). Registration fee is $1,495 but you get a HP 2133 Mini-Note PC out of it, so essentially your cost is few hundred bucks.

Hope to see you there - http://www.office20.com

Saturday, August 09, 2008

PC Computing vs. SaaS Computing

I've written up a piece about the differences between traditional client-server and SaaS computing models from IT perspective for Moderro, thought I'd share with you here. SaaS comes out a hands down winner if you really look at it up close.

Read this document on Scribd: The Rise of Web Computing

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Zoho celebrates 1,000,000 users

Zoho did a lot of things right: they created a brand by offering quality SaaS applications, they figured out the business model by providing a healthy doze of freebie applications and only charging when the customers are hooked and charging a "no-brainer" fee, they keep innovating and putting out new products frequently

I'd say they are the ones to beat for the web office for small business.

I also hope this graph is representative of the overall SaaS adoption rate.
Congratulations Zoho!

Monday, July 14, 2008

VAR's - Dying Breed or Key to Success in the Office 2.0 world?


"I can make more money showing people how to use eBay"

This quote appeared a few days ago in the context of Microsoft's Online Services announcement, and highlights something that's been on my mind for a while - how's software distribution going to change in the Cloud Computing era, and more specifically, what the transition going to look like for the Value Added Resellers (VARs)/Integrators out there?

VARs/Integrators serve a useful purpose today - they act as brokers that help customers with the selection process, installation, vendor management, customizations and maintenance for a lot of businesses out there. The number of businesses where VARs play a critical part will come further into perspective when you consider that most regulated organizations (government, public service, military) are obligated to show that they've opened the product purchase up for bids (even if the product itself has already been selected)

Microsoft in particular has been very smart about using resellers. In fact they've built their empire in large thanks to the armies of resellers/integrators pushing and supporting its products. OS licenses, MSSQL, Sharepoint, Exchange, Remote Terminal Servers, MS Project, CRM, Accounting package - there are a lot of VARs who have made a nice living off of it for quite a while, and deservingly so - they allowed Microsoft to focus on software, taking on the labor-intensive task of selling and supporting the customer.

Now, web-based software models have all but cut out the middlemen, going straight to the customer, offering aggressive pricing, leaving practically no room for anyone in the distribution chain to make a living. They did it of course not out of desire to kill off the VARs, but to please the customer, making the software more affordable. But is that a sound strategy, or is it going to result in undesired side effects? From my years on the SaaS front lines, one thing that we’d seen time and time again, was with so many choices thrown at them, with no authoritative partner to help them sort it out, customers become paralyzed with indecision. Another undesirable side effect is that there’s little outside help for the new system to succeed, and we all know that technology adoption is a windy road.

Salesforce.com learned their lesson after years of pretty bad attrition rates, by finally engaging with big-name consulting firms (Accenture, Deloitte, IBM) and recently launching a consulting partner program

Google is also starting to engage with sales partners for their Google Apps offering as evidenced by the Australia deal they recently announced - using SMS Management and Technology as their partner.

Microsoft seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place trying to figure out how to combine or convert their well established reseller partner base to online services. (see below)

However, aside from the 3 above, there are very few SaaS vendors that seem to have dedicated any attention to their partnership (channel) programs.

So my question to you (both SaaS company executives and their would-be customers out there) is this:
  • Do you need VAR’s (integrator, or consulting partner)
  • Are you willing to pay them?
  • What would you like the VAR to do for you?

If you’re a VAR/consultant/integrator, what would you like to see from up-and-coming SaaS providers in terms of support and compensation?

Aside:
Microsoft for one has long understood the value of VAR channel in building the business. In fact they were one of the VAR friendliest hi-tech companies, which in my opinion attributed for a lion share of their success. These days Microsoft is having their own issues when it comes to VARs as they are transitioning into hosted services - first, they relied on resellers to host their solutions, now they are unequivocal about hosting themselves, and having VARs do sales, customization, migration, etc.. This leaves the VARs a smaller size of the pie, but it does make sense from the division of labor standpoint - let's face it, most VARs out there don't know much about hosting.

At this week's Microsoft WPC conference Steve Ballmer had to re-enforce the realities of Microsoft's move into cloud services, online Exhange and SharePoint software -- Microsoft doesn't have any other choice, and yes, they're competing with their own hosting partners. That's the reality of web 2.0, cloud services, Software + Services, SaaS, and the like. Do it or lose it. Microsoft most move to this online model to stay relevant and not let others dominate, so it's tough nougies for hosters if Microsoft competes with partners.

The partners' spin on this was that things aren't so bad. Many see the limitations of Microsoft's hosted solutions (customization be one of the biggest limitations) as John Fontana reports in his article. That may also be because Mircrosoft's online offerings are directed at smaller customers and not the enterprise. One partner quoted in John's article thinks this may also be about getting SharePoint into more users hands. Haven Computing CEO Rex Humston, who serves SMB's, says SharePoint isn't used much by smaller customers. It's not intuitive and easy enough for a low savvy user to configure and use.

The key question in the hosted Online Software Services from Microsoft (Exchange & SharePoint for now) is who owns the relationship with the customer, partners or Microsoft. The answer: Microsoft. When Online Exchange and SharePoint is available this fall, customers will go to a Microsoft online software portal site to sign up for services with Microsoft. If the customer is working with a Microsoft partner, the customer will have to associate their purchase with that partner. That's how sign up for online software services will work on day one. Indications are that somewhere down the road, partners will be able to sign customers up themselves without the customer having to take those steps. Support is the other big question I've heard partners ask about. The net-net is calls from the customer's IT person will go to Microsoft. All other calls, from users and such, go to the partner.

So, how do partners differentiate in the world of online software services from Microsoft? Microsoft suggests six areas of opportunity for partners: license sales (sell Microsoft's online software), deploy and migrate (help users get set up on online services and migrate from on premise software), customize (SharePoint designs, doc management and work flows), managed services (training, support, desktop management, desktop optimization, and business process management, new scenarios (same as managed services), and new segments (expand to customers you haven't been serving previously). I'd suggest there are also some others.
7/22/08:

There was an article in ChannelWeb today on this subject: http://www.crn.com/software/209100008?cid=VARBusinessFeed

...SaaS is moving the traditional VAR's 'cheese' by taking away legacy revenue from day-to-day grunt work associated with on-premise software deployments. But the dollars are still there, and VARs that learn to be creative 'mice' will find out how to get them.

SaaS creates the need for higher-end services that many VARs have traditionally offered, so there's a significant learning curve. The key, according to SaaS vendors, is for solution providers to intensely study their customer's business and figure out where to add value in the form of ongoing business consulting services.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Liquid Planner and SmartSheet

Pretty much everything we do involves project management. Projects take on different shapes and sizes, from a few tasks done by one person to 20 year NASA projects involving hundreds of thousands of pieces and people. Perhaps for that reason of having a variety of different projects types and sizes, project management has become one of the most contested domains in web applications (office 2.0 applications). I’ve already covered such formidable web PM applications as CentralDesktop and Basecamp in my previous posts. I’ve also received quite a few inquiries from the vendors in the past couple of months to review their solutions. While they all do a fine job at allowing one to document projects and manage tasks, most of them fall short of heavy-duty project management. When I say heavy-duty, I mean projects that have task dependencies, lots of uncertainties, shifting priorities, surprises (what is boringly called change management), resourcing issues, etc. Best-of-breed project management systems like MS Project (IF USED RIGHT) are quite good at handling this dynamic, uncertainty-ridden challenge, however up until recently I have not seen a web app equivalent that approached complex project handling.

That’s until I checked out LiquidPlanner.
You can tell a system that’s been patched together by couple of engineers over couple of month’s worth of time from a system that’s been constructed by a dedicated team with good domain knowledge. Liquid Planner is one such fine system. From a very usable interface (separate post on that subject), to a very potent feature set, I believe they are the first formidable web app competitor to MS office. Work breakdown, task dependencies, estimation that includes uncertainties, resource leveling, schedule recalculation, - they’ve got it all covered. They are based up in Redmond (Microsoft land) and seem to have assembled a very capable management team – I would bet good money on them making it big. Oh, did I mention that their pricing model is also the right one for the web, with easy to start and scale pricing plans.

Another project management tool that I’ve found recently is SmartSheet.com


– they’ve taken a very different route to project management. Actually, a very familiar one to most of us. They figured that most people manage everything with Excel (who said email was the killer app). So they’ve taken that paradigm and extended it to the project mgmt domain. You start with a blank spreadsheet and start adding things to it just as you would with Excel, with the exception that the spreadsheets are smart and can link tasks to each other, link owners, send emails, etc.. Really a very innovative and very likely successful approach.
I love both solutions and will be using them myself.

Other web project management products/projects reviewed:

Monday, June 23, 2008

Gears for Google Docs - Are we there yet?

Google announced Gears support for Google Docs today. If you don't know what Google Gears are - it's a technology that makes web applications work when you're not online. This blog is about Office 2.0, which in turn is about web applications replacing their desktop predecessors. Office Applications(writer, spreadsheet, and presentations) are some of the most critical applications that people use in their daily work-related activities. Google Docs have been available for a while but enjoyed less than stellar adoption, despite their rich feature set. One of the obstacles on the way to adoption was the fact that you couldn't open Google Docs when not online (nowadays it means mostly you're on a plane, at a hotel or other public location where they want to extort $9.95 for a connection, or out and about). Google Gears helps overcome this obstacle by providing access to the files while off-line.


Google Gears support for Google Docs might be that last drop, the catalyst, that will push a lot of people off the fence when it comes to switching to the Google Docs as their primary Office applications.

P.S. Take a look at my other post about running the application in its own window.. Gears applications require the application to be already loaded when you go off-line, so working with them in a separate desktop window rather than the browser helps a lot.

P.P.S. Google Docs is not the only option when it comes to the Gears-supported Office Suite. Zoho (my favorite office 2.0 company) has had Gears supported office suite for several months now.

Links:
Google Docs - docs.google.com

Monday, June 09, 2008

Making Web apps behave like Windows apps

I don't know about you, but running web applications in the browser tabs is something that I find less than convenient, even irritating at times. Browser tabbed user interface is great for reading news, articles, and performing an occasional shopping transaction. But when it comes time to using it as a shell for an application, all those extra toolbars and buttons start to get in the way real quick. So lately I've been toying with repackaging the web apps as Windows apps.

Benefits include being able to run each application as a separate process (if one crashes, you don't have to restart the rest), being able to minimize and restore the windows from Windows tray panel (instead of having one browser window for everything), and ability to position the windows independently from each other.


Here are a few of these shells, feel free to try them out and let me know what you think. I for one can't imagine going back to not using them anymore..


The files have .ex~ extension in order to get around browser security checks - you will need to rename them back to .exe (no viruses, I guarantee :)

Monday, March 31, 2008

LongJump

Business people have been waiting for this moment for a long time – the time when they wouldn’t have to rely on IT people to tell them what’s possible, what’s not, and invariably a “we’re booked up 1 year ahead of time” line.. That’s why when Salesforce.com and a few other hosted application providers appeared on the scene, they enjoyed a healthy appetite from the business crowd. While Salesforce.com started as a Sales Automation application (as the name implies), they have been gradually morphing into a “platform” (a common database for various business applications).

Now this post is not about SalesForce however. This post is about LongJump. LongJump started out by being that platform (or database) that business folks (ok, IT folks as well) can write applications on. They did many things right:

  1. they created starter/reference applications for customers to use
  2. they understood it was about little things (their ad in the CRM journal talks about “30-second call and opportunity logging”, “actionable home pages”, “automatic call-backs” – the stuff that’s not obvious when you’re just looking through the marketing check-off list, but becomes important upon the implementation
  3. they take business logic seriously. I’m talking about the stuff that makes the businesses run once the data is collected. Most CRMs (especially early on) concentrated mainly on collecting the data, but the real value comes from being able to use this data to power the business systems and processes.

Let’s talk about #3 in a little more detail. You’re a customer service manager and you want to implement a process by which if the customer’s issue is not resolved to their satisfaction within 8 hours, it gets escalated to the next tier rep, and if it’s past 36 hours, it gets escalated to you. Or you’re a sales manager and you’ve just sent out a mass mailing about new product launch and you want your staff to focus only on those accounts that just spent more then 3 minutes reading through the literature on your web site. How do you do that? That’s what LongJump’s workflows allow you to do, and with a nice graphical drag-n-drop interface to boot. This is a very powerful stuff!

To be clear, LongJump is not the only ones tackling the problem from the generic hosted database platform side, there are couple other interesting contenders that have been on my radar – CogHead is one, and QuickBase is another, however so far I like LongJump the best out of the trio.

But what about SalesForce you may wonder, are they sleeping at the wheel? Not exactly.. as I mentioned before, they are making efforts to transition into the ‘everything database platform’, however I find their model of charging for the basic service and letting 3rd parties develop their own apps for business logic too complicated and expensive. LongJump charges 19.95 per user per month vs SalesForce’s $65 + 3rd party add-ons. Bottom line, I’d like to see a serious competitor to SalesForce’s almost-monopoly (sorry NetSuite) out there, so I’m rooting for LongJump.

A bit of a side note.. While I think what LongJump and others are doing at providing a unified database platform that specific applications can be written to, providing complete unity of the data, I’m not yet sure how something like this is going to play out organizationally. Applications like this to be constructed correctly do involve quite a bit of system analysis, information system principles awareness and perhaps a central body to oversee the web of efforts that may come from different corners of organization. Having said that I’m not sure that the current separation of IT and Business Units is compatible with a new breed of applications like this. Perhaps, the solution would be to have a dedicated IT or otherwise technically inclined personnel attached to a Business Unit and a central body that oversees that approach, kind of like PMO (project mgmt office) – it would have to be lean enough and lenient enough though to where it doesn’t defeat the purpose of having this application development democratization.. more on that later perhaps..

______________

References

LongJump - www.LongJump.com

CogHead - www.coghead.com

QuickBase - www.quickbase.com

SalesForce - www.salesforce.com

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Comapping.com Collaborative Mind Maps

If you've never been exposed to mind maps, rejoice! Today is the day that you will pick up one of the most effective headache remedies.

A mind map is a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks or other items linked to and arranged radially around a central key word or idea. It is used to generate, visualize, structure and classify ideas, and as an aid in study, organization, problem solving, decision making, and writing.


Mind maps (or similar concepts) have been used for centuries, for learning, brainstorming, memory, visual thinking, and problem solving by educators, engineers, psychologists and people in general. Some of the earliest examples of mind maps were developed by Porphyry of Tyros, a noted thinker of the 3rd century as he graphically visualised the concept categories of Aristotle. Ramon Llull also used these structures of the mind map form.

Wheather you're planning a wedding, thinking about your investment strategy, planning out career options, working on a project at work, anything really.. mind maps are a great tool to whip those thoughts into shape :)


Comapping.com is a Flash-based Office2.0 application that comes as close to perfect Mind Map implementation as I've seen! Not only does it support all the standard functions of a mind mapping package, it provides an excellent collaborative experience!!! (this is what office 2.0 is about folks) You can work on a mind map with your colleagues like if you were in front of a white board. It also supports tasks so you tally up all the tasks produced by the model at the end of the exercise and email them out.

I've been using this tool for over 1/2 year now and it's robust and well-designed. About the only gripe I have is that all the branches are laid out to just one side, but I can live with that. Oh, the best news is it's only $9.99 for 6 months! Try it out, let me know what you think. I bet you will like it.

www.CoMapping.com