The PaaS Era, Part 1: Everybody's Pounding Out Mashups
Companies are finding that one of the best ways to foster interest in their applications is to distribute SDKs and let developers have at them. A growing trend toward delivering Platform as a Service capabilities means that mashups have sprung up in the thousands, making the notion of old-fashioned software customization seem almost quaint.
Earlier this month Zuora, a startup that's less than a year old, launched Z-Commerce, a platform that gives developers access to its applications as well as Z-Force's API (application programming interface) documentation, sample code and toolkits. There is also a sandbox environment, currently available in private beta.
A few years ago, this might have seemed like an overly ambitious undertaking for small company. Today -- thanks to developments in the Software as a Service space -- it has become almost expected.
Those developments were fueled by Salesforce.com, which in 2007 introduced its Force.com platform to third-party developers so they could build apps that integrated with its existing services. This move was a runaway success for Salesforce.com. Since then, not surprisingly, it has been duplicated in various ways by other vendors.
Salesforce.com hardly deserves all the credit, though. Social media, the advancement of Web 2.0 in the enterprise space, and Web services in general have all contributed to the development of next-gen customer relationship management applications that are far more open and able to incorporate dynamic, third-party information.
Also, to be fair, there were other vendors experimenting with this approach around the same time -- although not at the same scale. Salesforce.com, though, was inarguably the best at promoting it, mirroring its success a decade ago selling the SaaS delivery model.
Vindicia, for example, opened its CashBox billing platform to developers three years ago, enabling them to build their own applications in one of six programming languages, noted Vindicia CEO Gene Hoffman. CashBox provides a standards-based API for automatic subscription-based and one-time billing services.
Hoffman is not surprised that this model is gaining traction: "CRM and other software companies are increasingly encouraging developers to build applications on their platforms and to distribute those applications online as a turnkey solution," he told CRM Buyer. "In addition to the distribution and ecosystem benefits for developers, this Platform as a Service model offers vendors an opportunity to expand their reach with developers."
There are, however, limitations to this approach. "Salesforce.com certainly is on the mark, making its application open and ready to integrate. Doing that advances the value proposition of any Platform as a Service," Francis Carden, founder of OpenSpan, told CRM Buyer.
"But CRM applications in any form might only represent between 10 percent to 30 percent of an enterprise's core legacy application set. The rest might be financials, shipping, inventory control and the like -- split among mainframe, Web, Windows native, Java, even virtualized applications. Even if a CRM Platform as a Service comes ready to work with some of these, there are often many legacy applications with no obvious APIs or other integration points, and little IT appetite or budget to approach them, he explained."
Service-oriented architecture, or SOA, was one integration promise, but changes to existing SOA take time and can be expensive. "Thus, true enterprise-wide desktop integration remains a challenge," said Carden.
Still, the contrast between what was possible a few years ago and what even small companies can do today is remarkable.
BatchBlue Software, for example, opened its BatchBook application development platform to partners and users in early January 2009, CEO Pamela O'Hara told CRM Buyer.
The public API allows both customers and partners much more flexibility when working with the BatchBook application, including a more streamlined tool for sharing data with other applications, she said. "For example, one customer used the BatchBook API to migrate their CRM data from another application into BatchBook. A BatchBlue partner is using the API to develop a tool that all customers can use to sync profile information with a popular social media network."
Many CRM vendors, in fact, are taking advantage of applications that providers of corporate data are offering, such as Jigsaw.
Last year Jigsaw launched its Open Data Initiative, an open source program that allows vendors to import or preload its data into their own applications. Since then, vendors such as NetSuite, Oracle, Sage, SugarCRM, Entellium, Landslide and Maximizer have inked partnerships with the company to incorporate its data into their own applications.
These, of course, are mashups: Web applications that combine data from one or more sources -- usually outside the original application or database -- into a single integrated tool.
While their use has become ubiquitous, many companies are not aware they are using them, Yankee Group analyst Sheryl Kingstone told CRM Buyer. "When we query users we ask about mashups and they either don't understand what the term is or they say they are not interested -- but when we dig a little further, they are obviously using them."
Their value, though, is clear. "There is a lot of data stored in a variety of places -- whether in third-party social networks or CRM databases," Denis Pombriant, principal of Beagle Research, told CRM Buyer. "It is very helpful to be able to seamlessly access the information as if it were all part of one database."
For instance, many mashups focus on "perennial pain points." he continued.
The integration of dynamic contact information into a CRM application, for example, address a sore need for this functionality on the part of sales and marketing staff, said Pombriant. "Rather than company databases becoming obsolete, social networking mashups have the potential to keep them up to date. Having these capabilities gives us the opportunity to let our imaginations go wild."
Indeed, the mashup capabilities with third-party data represent only the tip of an iceberg.