Sunday, July 22, 2007 

Software as Disservice

I have come to the conclusion that, far from liberating consumer's and businesses, the whole 'Software as a Service' movement, is inherently disempowering to users.

Firstly, some definitions. In referring to 'Software as a Service' (SaaS) I include Application Service Providers (ASP's) because, although the ASP model is seen as inferior in service to the more recent SaaS model, they both essentially do the same thing... they process data outside the client's PC as a service. This idea has steadily gained momentum and along the way has become associated with 'Web2.0-Think'. Tim O'Reilly et all, talk of 'Web as a Platform' and 'Software above the Level of a Single Device' and consequently, ideas like this have been jumped on by companies like Microsoft who have tried to co-opt the movement by coining new cool sounding terms like CloudOS which is really just another Microsoft euphemism for continued world domination... Visualize Steve Ballmer chanting:"developers, developers developers, developers!"

The anomaly that I see, is that the broad SaaS trend is fundamentally at odds with the massive investment consumers and businesses have made and continue to make in computer processing power, and Web2.0's 'Architecture of Participation' is built on that processing power. The extent to which the Web2.0 movement have actually embraced the SaaS model as serving some undeniable user benefit is unclear and therefore to assume so, could potentially be misreading the situation. However, the reason I am drawing the parallels here is that it is an issue that needs to be cleared up. 'Software as a Service' inherently serves the interests of vendors as much as, if not more than end-users by attempting to make users dependent on licensing technology and services rather than owning them and maintaining those competencies in-house. Chris Anderson and Tim O'Reily et al talk of the 'Long Tail'... Steve Ballmer talks of "selling to the Long Tail".

In my view, this goes all the way back to Hotmail. In the early days people used a hotmail account only when traveling or for non important or 'anonymous' email. Of course many students and ordinary folk used hotmail as their primary email account and that fed its stunning growth. However, it was also a curse, as I noted in an earlier post (Putting P2P in Perspective - April 22 2006) even Bill Gates freely admitted that:

"...over half of what goes through (the hotmail servers) is actually mail that's spam that people are not interested in receiving.” - Bill Gates

The trouble is now, as I found out the other day when helping a friend with her new Mac, that webmail is the only kind of email that some people know about. My friend simply had no idea that there was any other kind of email! She has never used a proper email program, has never had a proper email address and had no idea what I was talking about when I said:

"With a real email program, you download your email and it stays on your computer, including the files you receive, like pictures, PDFs etc. So, you don't have to go online to review all the emails you have received"

She had no idea... To her, when you check email, you have to go online and log onto Hotmail and that is the only way to get email or to review old emails. She is clearly not an early adopter, obviously. She in fact is what marketers call "a lagard", but if you look at the product adoption curves for market growth on the web you will know that she is far from alone. This is where the disparity becomes evident. She is able to afford the latest iMac, (easily) but the little 'Mail' icon in the tool bar is a foreign area for her. She's got an abundance of processing power and storage space, she only ever checks email from that PC, but the market has trained her to depend on a third party for a service as basic as email... I think she has been disadvantaged.

Now, consider and such sites. They want everyone to throw away their in-house software and migrate on mass to the quasi 'thin-client' approach and use their software instead of yours. This trend is pushed heavily by web2.0 entrepreneurs and the venture capital industry because its a business model that keeps 'control' with the vendor and keeps the client having to come back time and time again to that vendor for a service that in earlier models may have meant sporadic or once-only purchases. It also provides the 'multiplier' to shore-up the business model. So, where does the benefit really lie, and who's really driving this model, consumers or vendors?

The 'Software as Service' doctrine is that it is a: "low-cost way for businesses to obtain the same benefits of commercially licensed, internally operated software without the associated complexity and high initial cost." (wikipedia) However, in many ways its a model that is also at odds with the service enabled by P2P applications like Skype, where users individually and collectively power the software that underwrites the service. This undeniable trend (eDonkey, Limewire, Bittorent) is pointing in the opposite direction, as it utilizes each consumer's capital outlay in PC processing power and bandwidth. So... What is so 'web2.0' about Software as Service? This is web2.0 vendors in service of themselves, arguably.