Sunday, November 23, 2008

Reflecting on the past

Towards the end of the last millenium I led the innovation and development activities at a Dutch technology start-up company called Small Planet Software based in Amsterdam.

From a standing start in December 1996 with an empty office and a blank sheet of paper it took a further three years of dazzling creativity and an extraordinary amount of individual personal sacrifice (which characterised this company) for the BeyondChat platform to be born.

Guy Chater, a British inventor whom I'd met during a visit to the Netherlands at the end of 1996, had shown me a VHS recording of a promotional movie that he'd had produced using actors to play a sequence of interactions using a mock-up 'future video-dating service', which was all based on an idea that he was keen commercialise.

I was imediatley sold on the idea and Guy recruited me as CTO to lead the product development. After moving to Amsterdam from Darmstadt in Germany where I'd been working in the same team as Don Box contibuting to the 'DCOM on Unix' work for Software AG, Small Planet quickly became my life for more than 3 years between the start of 1997 and mid-2000.

At Small Planet I built and managed an international team that included some of the most talented individuals I've ever worked with, and together we set about creating a completely new communications platform.

BeyondChat was the world's first software communication platform to allow visual filtering and visual selection of user-generated, multi-media profile content, from a dynamically updated visual directory service.

Before BeyondChat, the user experience for online communication services was highly fragmented based on many separate software applications such as CU-SeeMe and NetMeeting with Internet Locator Services, which were operated by many different service providers across disperate networks of varying quality.

BeyondChat successfully integrated multi-media profile creation and publishing with visual presence, visual Caller ID, video streaming, and videoconferencing along with functionality for micropayments, credit card transactions and CPA online advertising.

CamCrowd was a popular online community launched in 2000 using the BeyondChat software platform. CamCrowd targeted the then nascent worldwide market of home PC users having both webcams and broadband Internet access. CamCrowd supported a large service user community and massive concurrent usage.

Ultimately Small Planet would become just another casualty of the dotcom bubble. The BeyondChat intellectual property was lost to the Dutch bankruptcy administrators, although privately held patents have survived.

Building a start-up business and then loosing everything you've worked for during a bankruptcy is a truly spiritual experience. Typing this blog post now I realise that you never really forget the pain of the loss, but the more time passes it does become easier to reflect positively on the experience.

BeyondChat R.I.P.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The future of education and research networks

Education and research networks are typically publicly funded by tax payers and generally exist to provide reliable and secure network connectivity and communication services to a relatively closed community, or niche, of education and research sector 'customers' – usually confined by national boundaries but peered with other education and research networks internationally and commercial network services providers via the Internet. The service portfolio of a typical education and research network service provider includes video conferencing services along with access to very high quality bandwidth and IP network connectivity along with a range of the value-added services such as DNS and Email and the like, as would be provided by any commercial ISP. The customer service interface is almost totally devoid of any commercial-style marketing and promotional material, though obviously customer service desks are provided in keeping with the commercial network service provider service model. Most employees in education and research network service providers are technically very smart 'power-users', and typically come from an academic background.

Whilst researching the roles that education and research networks might play in providing services for their 'customers' in the future, and, perhaps more importantly in trying to come to a clear view of how IT Services companies should be shaping up to help, and with my head completely spinning, I was interested to read a thought-provoking blog post Teacher on Demand by my colleague Rudolf van der Berg about the possibilities of video channels for teaching.

This provoked me to think about how Web 2.0 might be applied to add value for network service providers in this sector and enhance our vision for the future of this sector. Don Tapscott refers to 'The New Alexandrians' when he describes his vision for the future of this sector in chapter 6 of his book Wikinomics (take a look at the Wikinomics blog for an interesting read). Don talks about 'The Science of Sharing' and why collaboration and sharing is now, and as it has always been since the time of the Alexandrians, fundamental to educational and research networks. He develops this idea further in a subsequent section entitled 'The Sharing of Science', where he says "Just as collaborative tools and applications are re-shaping enterprises, the new Web will forever change the way scientists publish, manage data, and collaborate across institutional boundaries".

With this vision in mind, it would seem there is a gaping opportunity (or even perhaps an obligation) for network service providers in the education and research sector to leverage their existing network and customer assets, along with some Web 2.0 thinking, and really start to re-model themselves as 'collaboration enablers' providing platforms to support more frequent and diverse, high-quality, feature-rich online interactions between their network users, the users of their peers networks, and the wider Internet user community. This increase in both openess and collaborative activity could stimulate innovation, which ultimately would help to accelerate a return to growth for the national economies in the western world.

Tax payers are (in one way or another) currently funding much of the strategic investments being made by western governments into their local financial systems. This investment is clearly needed to help stabilise the financial sector and assure normal functioning of commercial and public sector enterprises, though channeling some additional investment toward also increasing innovation through improved education and research networks at this time might give the tax payer a better return overall.

I feel that much can be done in the education and research sector, and that network service providers and their suppliers especially have a big role to play in helping to ensure that our western enconomies re-emerge from the economic downturn in quick time and in good shape.

TMForum Business Process Framework (eTOM) training

A couple of weeks back I was fortunate to attend a three day TMForum training course covering the Business Process Framework (eTOM).

I've dabbled with this framework sucessfully in past to help win business for my current employer Logica, though I'm definitely not an expert, so it was good to have the opportunity to dig deeper into the details over the three days of the training course and build a better understanding of how the framework can be applied.

It was also very useful to talk to others attending the training course including business and technical consultants, and programme delivery managers from Atos Consulting, BT Design, Ericsson, Nokia Siemens Networks, Technomanage, Wi Tribe, Patni, Detecon, Bearing Point, and Crown Interactive about how they use the framework within their service provider businesses.

Overall I am a fan of this framework. It provides a neutral point of view for describing service provider business processes, and offers a very simple and convenient way of describing the business scope for work that we undertake with our customers. It allows us to capture and communicate a concise description of the service provider business process, at different levels of detail, and I believe it could be useful for both business and technical consultants working with telecoms and utility industry clients. Though as with most tools, judicious use is necessary to ensure that the process analysis and design activities don't become a purely academic pursuit.

Access to training, and also some of the documents, is restricted to member organisations though plenty very useful downloadable information, specifications, and case studies available for free with unrestricted access from the TMForum website.

I'd like to thank Mike Kelly - Senior Technical Manager at TMForum - for delivering an excellent training.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Microsoft platforms in the sky...

As the October date of the annual Microsoft Professional Developer Conference 2008 approaches, we're now beginning to catch glimpses of Microsoft's Cloud computing strategy.

We'll have to wait until October and Ray Ozzie's keynote speech to get the complete picture, but there doesn't seem to be much doubt that Microsoft does have something significant up its sleeve to compete with Google and Amazon in the Cloud, and that we're all about to be propelled into a new age working with the next generation of Microsoft technology and bringing it to our customers.

It appears the Microsoft model will provide a distributed computing environment which, perhaps unsurprisingly, allows application functionality and data to be deployed either in the Cloud or on the user device, and both applications and data can be synched so they are always available for the user even when the Cloud is not.

Insights about the Microsoft platform strategy have recently been made available by key Microsoft development leaders Doug Purdy and Don Box, and independent Microsoft commentator Mary-Jo Foley has posted about Live Mesh and Oslo (aka Zurich).

Seems the Microsoft model sits somewhere between where Microsoft is today and the pure Cloud computing model of Amazon and Google.

Interestingly, if all the speculation turns out to be accurate, then this model should deliver the flexibility needed to meet the diverse and changing needs of the largest and most demanding customers, but also at the same time continue to appeal to Microsoft's valuable developer community.

Using an online interaction platform to drive SaaS usage in the enterprise

This post provides a view of how an online interaction platform might be used to drive usage of SaaS applications in the enterprise.

An enterprise online interaction platform (OIP) is an enabling platform for SaaS providers who are focussed on enterprise segment customers. The online interaction platform includes IT Services that support the whole of the SaaS lifecycle. The online interaction platform is delivered using the 'Platform-as-a-Service' (PaaS) model.

In parallel with SaaS, PaaS has evolved from its original incarnation as the application infrastructure platform (AIP) pioneered by a few brave application service providers (ASP) who entered the market around the turn of the century, to the current multi-tenant, on-demand model exemplified by Force.Com (SalesForce.Com) and characterised by developer APIs and availability of a sandbox exposing enabling-platform functionality such as single-sign-on and identity management, collaboration (web-conferencing, instant messaging, social networking, wikis, RSS feeds, blogs, and all manor of user generated multi-media content), document and content management, search and discovery, reporting and BI, workflow, and billing.

A key benefit of PaaS results from having collaboration and communication functionality built into the platform, which can be used throughout the supply chain to create high-value networks connecting users with communities that span the length and breadth of the SaaS value chain. The bringing together of these communities online has significantly compressed supply-chains across the whole of the enterprise application software eco-system, blurring the boundaries between supply and demand, producer and consumer. The resulting increase in the volume, frequency and quality of interactions across these communities can accelerate innovation, time to market, deployment, and adoption/usage of enterprise applications.

The economics of the PaaS provider are fairly straightforward. A substantial fixed-cost is associated with the capital expended on platform infrastructure; a relatively small incremental cost is associated with each tenant provisioned within the platform environment, and additional incremental costs are associated with the volume of transactions for each tenant. Income is dependent upon service usage by end users (probably subscription revenues in the enterprise space, but advertising revenues are also technically possible), and/or from platform tenants (3rd party application developers and ISVs).

In order to maximise ROI for the enterprise online interaction platform:
  • Relationships with ISVs need to be established to ensure that a rich portfolio of relevant and compelling applications is available for enterprise customers in vertical markets, supported by an accessible vibrant developer community
  • Joint go-to-market and other demand-side models need to be defined for working with network service providers, Telcos and other wanabee SaaS providers in order to promote SaaS to enterprise customers in defined vertical markets
  • Expenditure on platform infrastructure capacity should be aligned with the demand for platform services from tenants, customers and end-users (start very small and only add platform capacity when demand contractually committed). Initial integration with billing and ops systems should be minimal
  • Communities need to be developed, and managed, to increase the volume, frequency and quality of interactions within the platform eco-system, and the knowledge from these interactions should be used to innovate, improve, integrate, and increase usage
  • Customer implementations of the SaaS applications should be supported with a managed roll-out including some or all of the following value-added services:
    • Business case development and preparation, and planning for customer implementation
    • definition and management of benefits realisation
    • planning and management of integration with legacy on-premise applications
    • planning and management of data and content migration from legacy systems
    • provision of usage reporting for business intelligence and to inform decision making

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Strategic value propsition for SaaS and IT Service Providers

This post gives a high-level description of a strategic value proposition for IT Service providers working with SaaS and network service providers in the enterprise space, and introduces the concept of an enterprise online interaction platform that leverages the power of Web 2.0 technology to accelerate usage of SaaS in the enterprise.

IT Services providers should engage at the highest level with networked IT service providers in strategic partnerships with a single shared objective to increase penetration (orders) and usage (revenue) of SaaS delivered to enterprise segment customers.

The resulting operating model should leverage the customer intimacy IT Service providers enjoy with their enterprise segment customers in order to accelerate the adoption of SaaS by new customers, and also to increase usage of SaaS already deployed for existing customers.

SaaS is now a mature delivery model...
Over the past 10 years or so, the Software as a Service (SaaS) delivery model has evolved through different generations:
  • Generation 1: hosted application service provider (ASP) model characterised by inflexible software vendor licensing and rigidly packaged 'one size fits all' functionality.
  • Generation 2: 'pure-play' web-based applications developed 'ground-up' to provide more flexibly packaged departmental functionality such a CRM, ERP, Financials and HR (e.g. SalesForce.Com, Plexus, NetSuite, and WebEx)
  • Generation 3: 'hybid-SaaS' applications such as Force.Com (SalesForce.Com today), RightNow, and SAP (MySap/NetWeaver) characterised by application programming interfaces (APIs), complex ecosystems of ISVs, consultancies, and emerging partnerships that offer faster deployment, and support extended customizations and integration requirements for enterprise IT and business users.
The SaaS community has clearly converged on agreement that the best way to accelerate adoption of SaaS is to view it from the end user's perspective — it's their needs that must be satisfied by the SaaS vendor's chosen delivery model.

Network service providers are transforming their businesses...
Over a similar period, incumbent European networked service providers have been heavily involved in the evolution of SaaS, or 'networked IT', and SaaS is now an established component of their business strategy and product portfolios. Network service providers have accelerated their investment in next generation networks and supporting infrastructure and are part-way through strategic transformation to become next generation network service providers. The return they will realise from their investments in these vast data service delivery capabilities is dependent upon the volume of data they can route across this next generation infrastructure. The cost of delivering a traditional voice service is reduced by up to 90% when that service is migrated from legacy circuit-switched infrastructure to the next generation network infrastructure – so it's clear that the required data volumes will not be achieved without the addition of new data services and an increase in usage of existing data services.

The end of the on-premise software gravy train…
Large traditional IT Services companies have dominated enterprise IT for decades. These companies have grown rich on profits from the armies of their consultants needed to implement, integrate, customise, maintain and operate monolithic on-site enterprise software applications and hardware. These IT Services companies have been slow to recognise and adapt to the tectonic shift taking place in the software industry around SaaS. Hooked to the economics of on-premise software deployment, large IT Services companies are finding it difficult to adapt their business models and organisations to the new paradigm; they have not invested in new capabilities needed to keep pace with the evolution of SaaS. There is now evidence that the largest enterprises are beginning to move from small departmental SaaS ‘experiments’ to wide scale adoption of SaaS across departments, divisions and business units involving thousands of end-users. Traditional IT Services companies risk being slowly disenfranchised in the enterprise by smaller and more agile ‘customer-centric’ competitors focussed on the provision of ‘IT Services 2.0’.
‘IT Services 2.0’ providers use the enabling power of Web 2.0 technology to put more emphasis on the customer and end-users, at the core of innovation. The application of Web 2.0 technology to SaaS and IT Services accelerates innovation, and focuses application development and deployment to increase adoption and customer satisfaction in the enterprise. IT Services 2.0 use the power of Web 2.0 to enhance the customer experience using mash-ups, social networking, knowledge sharing and collaboration functionality, to encourage interaction amongst service users by stimulating the development of highly-valuable managed communities and knowledge networks. This is a highly desirable ‘premium position’ in the value-chain that is close to customers and intimate with end-users.

The opportunity...
A significant opportunity exists for IT Services providers to add value for enterprise customers by partnering with SaaS and network services providers in order to develop solutions around an 'online interaction platform' that can leverage the power of Web 2.0 to accelerate usage and adoption of SaaS. When I use the word “platform”, I don’t mean a stack of hardware and software in a data centre, I mean a proposition that is focussed on leveraging the value of networks and communities in order to stimulate innovation and accelerate usage of SaaS by enterprise end-users and drive revenue for network services providers.
Software and hardware will be required, but success will be almost completely dependent upon the IT Service providers' ability to leverage their customer intimacy in order to make the enterprise online interaction platform work. Currently no IT Services players have established dominant positions in this space, though the large enterprise software vendors have been quick to address the opportunity. Microsoft in particular is promoting a comprehensive suite of communication, collaboration, knowledge sharing and business intelligence tools with the combined functionality required to provide online interaction platforms for future IT Services 2.0. The key to unlocking value from this functionality is the intimacy and trust that IT Service providers enjoy with their enterprise customers, and the knowledge and experience they possess of their enterprise customers' business objectives, processes and culture.

What are the next steps...
IT Service providers need to act to secure their position in the value chain through adoption of IT Services 2.0 tools, technologies, and processes. The enterprise SaaS online interaction platform is strategic and has high growth potential for IT Service providers with a focus on the telecoms and media industry, though the IT Services industry generally is still unsure about the economics of IT Services 2.0, and it is unclear how to make money! All said and done, the strategic nature of the proposition means that efforts should be continued in order to quantify the value proposition for the enterprise online interaction platform through experience gained working with SaaS and network service providers on targetted and focussed activities to develop and deploy individual components of the platform.