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Why SaaS is not a desktop replacement

Desktop applications from Google and others are presented as Microsoft Office killers, but the analogy is imprecise.

The next wave of end-user computing is less about the notion of replacing the current desktop software than it is about imagining better ways to do the job itself.

Software as a service, or SaaS, and concepts such as Web 2.0 and Office 2.0 seek to shift applications – even things like email, which IT shops consider among their most crucial to business – over to a Web basis.

Virtualization and the changing Windows desktop

Virtual PCs and SaaS force IT to rethink Windows desktop

Virtual desktops can clean house but move cautiously

Who should use desktop virtualization or SaaS?

Key terms and definitions

Thus far, the industry has positioned the delivery of desktop productivity applications as a battle between Google Inc. and Microsoft, which both provision office-type suites. This assumes a comparison of equal functions when weighing the cost benefit of managing an expensive fat client versus subscribing to software that is run by a third party.

But this may not be a money-saving issue and it may have nothing to do with replacing traditional fat desktops, according to Jonathan Eunice, principal at Illuminata Inc., a Nashua, N.H.-based consulting firm. "It's the way we work together that is changing," he said.

The next big thing

The model of a modern desktop started in the 1980s with the graphical user interfaces of Apple Computer Inc. and then with Microsoft's Windows. Throughout the 1990s there was a rapid consolidation of word processing and email vendors that led to a world where Microsoft is the dominant desktop vendor.

So what's next? Eunice said he thinks it could be the concept of "Office 2.0," which is essentially Web 2.0, but related to office-type applications -- and with freshly injected capabilities.

Office 2.0 brings teamwork into the mix. People can work concurrently on a document, making changes along the way. This is vastly different from today's sequential interactions where each person has his or her own document, does some work and then passes it forward.

Improvements to networks, technologies

A couple of things are helping this along, Eunice said. There has been a big improvement in the delivery of the virtualized infrastructure. The networks to connect to the servers are better. IT shops that centralize the running of desktops see greater efficiencies.

There have also been big improvements in technologies, such as Java Script, HTML and Flash, plus there is greater understanding of how they can be used to provide interactive Web applications, he said.

It may take years for virtual hosted desktops to enter the mainstream. When they do, end users won't notice a thing. On the other hand, Office 2.0-style computing will transform the way end users work, and that sort of change always takes a lot of time.

Eunice recommends that IT managers check out a few application services -- such as Google's Google Docs or AdventNet Inc.'s Zoho -- in a sandbox. He suggested collaborating with others on contracts or anything where several people need to come together quickly. "We've used it, and we've gotten contracts out faster, publications out faster because of its concurrent capability," he said.

Exploring enterprise-hosted services

Today, most IT shops mulling the idea of software services still see it as a desktop replacement. Traditional IT managers are notorious in their unwillingness to turn corporate data over to a hosted service because they lose control of it. But for IT executives with a long view, the idea is not off the table.

At Partners Healthcare System Inc. in Boston, Christopher Gervais is an enterprise IT architect whose job is to think of future strategies for his company. He knows the day is coming soon when traditional enterprise boundaries will evaporate. The services cloud may not be managed by a service provider but something they can offer out of Partners' own data center.

"We are looking at a more granular idea of SaaS, as a composite application development," Gervais said. "There will be software services with minimal user interface or no interface, so the applications we create may just have presentation and integration layers. And we connect to a back end of integration services we develop internally or get from suppliers," he said.

Seeing possibilities in SaaS

Like healthcare, financial services firms have many regulatory restrictions. The idea of turning data over to an outsider is still a deal-breaker. But David Mickelson, vice president and chief technical officer at Loomis, Sayles & Company L.P., a financial services firm in Boston, also sees possibilities in SaaS, where the services are all internal to the firm.

"It's a great architectural model, and it will be good for certain types of applications," Mickelson said. "But will Google be setting up desktop support? I'm not sure. And, there will have to be a lot of regulatory changes. No financial services firm could have data outside of the firewall and not face serious legal scrutiny," he said.

There is agreement, however, that the classic Windows desktop is changing and the way people work together will also change. Whether IT shops adopt virtual hosted desktops or try out some SaaS, it shows that the world is closer to getting desktop management under control.

"The definition of what a desktop is becoming is blurred," Mickelson said. "With desktop virtualization and SaaS, the desktop is becoming a lot of different ideas."

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