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TechCrunch Releases New Zoho Service: Invoice

Yes, the title isn’t a mistake: TechCrunch is no longer just powerful media, Mike now can single-handedly release new products.smile_wink.    Today I spent several hours testing a pre-release product, Zoho Invoice, which was a few weeks from it’s planned launch, when TechCrunch accidentally posted the news. The Zoho Team decided to play along, and instead of disappointing TC readers with a broken link, opted to release the product immediately.

Not exactly an orderly Launch, but not the end of the world either, especially not for Zoho, which has a reputation of updating their web-based products frequently. In my early testing today I found Invoice easy to use, with a soothing, pleasant UI where all the icons are in the right place and support the right information flow.   There are some features that were still under consideration as of this afternoon – so be it, this is a “forced” early release, updates and fixes will no doubt be coming soon (using the Feedback button at the top will help issues get fixed quickly).

So what do we have here? Essentially a billing application, that allows the user to create /import Clients, define items (product/service), generate estimates, convert them to invoice and accept payment against it. The Home screen is a Dashboard, providing a quick financial overview:

Information flows easily from one document to another, and there are a number of predefined (customizable) templates that can generate notification emails to the Customer at any stage. Notice the icons change on these two bars:

The Estimate (emailed or snail-mailed to the Customer) can be converted to an Invoice, but when displaying an Invoice, there’s a new icon there to enable entering a payment received.

There are transactional detail, summary, aging ..etc reports to help keep tight control of your receivables.

Although Zoho is primarily known for being the best Web-based Office / Productivity Suite provider, they are not exactly new to transactional business systems: their longest standing product is Zoho CRM (which is an understated name for a mini-ERP), the recently announced Zoho People, and a more full-featured Accounting system is in the works, too.   Talk about CRM, it already has some Invoice functionality, which will later be replaced by the new module, to be integrated with CRM.   For now, Zoho Invoice is integrated with Projects.

The slideshow below explains the setup, various functions and the workflow between them (click the lower right corner to switch to full-screen):

The new billing application is free up to 5  invoices a months, and there is a pricing scale depending on the number of invoices per month, from $5 incl. 25 invoices to $35 up to 1500 invoices.

The two notable competitors are BlinkSale and FreshBooks.  Zoho will no doubt build on the fact that Invoice is just one piece in the puzzle of 16 or so business applications it has to offer.

(Disclaimer: I am an Advisor to Zoho)

Related posts:  Webware.com, Enterprise Alley, Venture BeatZoho Blogs,

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NetBooks: Integrated SaaS Suite for Very Small Businesses. Almost.

When I started this post 2 months ago, it had a more tongue-in-cheek working title: NetBooks – the Little Gem in Hiding – clearly a play on Dennis Howlett’s  post, NetBooks – a little gem.  That’s because despite Dennis’s positive review of this new SaaS solution for small businesses I found their website a major turn-off .   I did not find a feature-list, screen prints, demos: the closest they had was a contact form to request a scheduled demo.  Failure!  You can’t reach the “long tail” of the market via outbound sales; your site needs to be absolutely transparent, so potential customers can find all feature / price information at their fingertips, then just try-and-buy. 

But what a difference a few weeks make!  Having checked back, now NetBooks offers decent product information, online videos, in fact you can now set up a free trial account with sample data in minutes.  (While it looks like just another contact form, the process is automated, I received my email confirmation within a minute.) Self-navigation definitely beats just watching vid’s. Kudos to NetBooks for fixing a major shortcoming so fast!  (Note to self: don’t leave half-written posts, they may have a short shelf-life…)

Let’s look at the actual system now.  NetBooks aims to be an On-Demand integrated business management solution for small manufacturing businesses – in fact for other types of businesses, too, as long as they hold inventory and ship tangible products.  They cater for  what they call True Small Businesses (TSB), which I referred to as  VSB – very small businesses, the “S” in SMB / SME.  Typically companies with less then 25 employees, sometimes only 3-5, and, most importantly, without professional IT support, hence Software as a Service is a life-saver.

NetBooks tries to cover a complete business cycle, from opportunity through sales, manufacturing, inventory / warehouse management, shipping, billing, accounting – some with more success then others.  Manufacturing, Inventory, Shipping and their integration to Accounting appear to be a stronghold.  If you’re in sales, you’d like to see a Sales Catalog, if you’re in the warehouse, you want an Inventory List, and if you are in manufacturing, you need a Production Elements list: they are all one and the same, allowing you to define a product structure (Bill of Materials, BOM) with different physical characteristics, reorder points, pricing levels, warehousing requirements, marketing notes…etc.   In other words, different functions can update their own slice of the same information and it’s shared with others (of course in a small business several of these functions may very well be carried out by the same person.)

Not having any procurement / purchasing functions appears to be a glaring omission: after all, if you’re in manufacturing, you will likely need to buy some components / materials. 

Another function, nominally present, but rather weak is CRM.  I can set up a Revenue Opportunity list, track contacts, events, even financial terms per record, but what’s the point if I can’t turn these into a Quote, later a Sales Order?  In fact I have to start a sales order from scratch, and it does not update the opportunities: unless you close them out, they will show as prospects long after you shipped the order, invoiced the customer and received payment.

Sales Order creation appears to be  a watershed event in NetBooks: that’s when the system comes alive, integration gets better from here, with information flowing through nicely.  Completing the order creates a shipping document, confirmation of the shipment creates a a billing request, invoice.  Even external services are integrated well, like UPS for Online Shipping and PayCycle for payroll .  There’s a complete “document trail”, you can start from the accounting side, too: from Accounts Payable (invoice) you can trace all actions back to the shipping doc, sales order…etc.

I understand why Dennis with his accounting background considered this system a gem:

As an accountant by training I often make the mistake of taking the number cruncher’s view. On this occasion I don’t have to. The way NetBooks is organized, you enter it according to the role you fulfill. That means you only ever need use the screens that are pertinent to you.

Real-world people record their real-world transactions: manufacturing, physical movement of goods, and the system records the facts in Accounting.  NetBooks  is an accounting system at it’s heart, but one without the need to deal with accounting screens.  This should not come as a surprise, given Founder Ridgley Evers’s own background: he was co-founder at QuickBooks, the de facto standard for small businesses.

Most of the sample data in the NetBooks trial system appear to have come from Evers’s real-life business: Davero Ingredienti, a purveyor of olive oil products, and I think this very well represents the type of small business NetBooks may be ideal for: relatively stable, has a good repeat customer base, receives a  lot of inbound orders and needs to execute on manufacturing and shipping to these customers.  It badly lacks stronger Sales features, and a more flow-oriented thinking to support aggressively growing businesses.

The User Interface is nothing to call home about. You certainly won’t find the lively charts and dashboards seen at Salesforce.com, NetSuite, SugarCRM, Zoho CRM …etc.  But having a simplistic UI is one thing, making it outright boring is another, and hard to use is a capital crime.  In NetBooks you basically navigate through small text lists, then double -click on an item to drill down to more details, wait long (the system, at least the trial one feels very slow) for several overlapping screens to pop up. You have to close or move around some of these pop-ups to see what’s underneath.  And whoever came up with the idea of clicking on those tiny arrows should be banned from web design for life.  

 

Seriously, this isn’t just the lack of rounded-corners-gradient-colors web 2.0 goodness: the poor UI, the microscopic arrows to click on render NetBooks a pain to use. 

Although I’ve been quite critical in this review, I still like the NetBooks concept: give very small businesses an integrated system they previously could not afford. NetBooks starts at $200/month for 5 users, additional users seats are $20.  That’s a fraction of the current “gold standard” in the space, NetSuite – although the step up to NetSuite also brings a wealth of new functionality.  Finally, SAP’s Business ByDesign is worth mentioning: when it becomes widely available, it will be the most function-rich SMB SaaS solution – but their entry point is about where NetBooks’s upper limit is.

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Will Google Enter the Business Applications Market?

Google’s next killer app will be an accounting system, speculates Read/WriteWeb. While I am doubtful, I enthusiastically agree, it could be the next killer app; in fact don’t stop there, why not add CRM, Procurement, Inventory, HR?

The though of Google moving into business process / transactional system is not entirely new: early this year Nick Carr speculated that Google should buy Intuit, soon to be followed by Phil Wainewright and others: Perhaps Google will buy Salesforce.com after all. My take was that it made sense for Google to enter this space, but it did not need to buy an overpriced heavyweight, rather acquire a small company with a good all-in-one product:

Yet unlikely as it sounds the deal would make perfect sense. Google clearly aspires to be a significant player in the enterprise space, and the SMB market is a good stepping stone, in fact more than that, a lucrative market in itself. Bits and pieces in Google’s growing arsenal: Apps for Your Domain, JotSpot, Docs and Sheets …recently there was some speculation that Google might jump into another acquisition (ThinkFree? Zoho?) to be able to offer a more tightly integrated Office. Well, why stop at “Office”, why not go for a complete business solution, offering both the business/transactional system as well as an online office, complemented by a wiki? Such an offering combined with Google’s robust infrastructure could very well be the killer package for the SMB space catapulting Google to the position of dominant small business system provider.

This is probably a good time to disclose that I am an Advisor to a Google competitor, Zoho, yet I am cheering for Google to enter this market. More than a year ago I wrote a highly speculative piece: From Office Suite to Business Suite:

How about transactional business systems? Zoho has a CRM solution – big deal, one might say, the market is saturated with CRM solutions. However, what Zoho has here goes way beyond the scope of traditional CRM: they support Sales Order Management, Procurement, Inventory Management, Invoicing – to this ex-ERP guy it appears Zoho has the makings of a CRM+ERP solution, under the disguise of the CRM label.

Think about it. All they need is the addition Accounting, and Zoho can come up with an unparalleled Small Business Suite, which includes the productivity suite (what we now consider the Office Suite) and all process-driven, transactional systems: something like NetSuite + Microsoft, targeted at SMB’s.

The difficulty for Zoho and other smaller players will be on the Marketing / Sales side. Many of us, SaaS-pundits believe the major shift SaaS brings about isn’t just in delivery/support, but in the way we can reach the “long tail of the market” cost-efficiently, via the Internet. The web-customer is informed, comes to you site, tries the products then buys – or leaves. There’s no room (or budget) for extended sales cycle, site visits, customer lunches, the typical dog-and-pony show. This pull-model seems to be working for smaller services, like Charlie Wood’s Spanning Sync:

So far the model looks to be working. We have yet to spend our first advertising dollar and yet we’re on track to have 10,000 paying subscribers by Thanksgiving.

It may also work for lightweight Enterprise Software:

It’s about customers wanting easy to use, practical, easy to install (or hosted) software that is far less expensive and that does not entail an arduous, painful purchasing process. It’s should be simple, straightforward and easy to buy.

The company, whose President I’ve just quoted, Atlassian, is the market leader in their space, listing the top Fortune 500 as their customers, yet they still have no sales force whatsoever.

However, when it comes to business process software, we’re just too damn conditioned to expect cajoling, hand-holding… the pull-model does not quite seem to work. Salesforce.com, the “granddaddy” of SaaS has a very traditional enterprise sales army, and even NetSuite, targeting the SMB market came to similar conclusions. Says CEO Zach Nelson:

NetSuite, which also offers free trials, takes, on average, 60 days to close a deal and might run three to five demonstrations of the program before customers are convinced.

European All-in-One SaaS provider 24SevenOffice, which caters for the VSB (Very Small Business) market also sees a hybrid model: automated web-sales for 1-5 employee businesses, but above that they often get involved in some pre-sales consulting, hand-holding. Of course I can quote the opposite: WinWeb’s service is bought, not sold, and so is Zoho CRM. But this model is far from universal.

What happens if Google enters this market? If anyone, they have the clout to create/expand market, change customer behavior. Critics of Google’s Enterprise plans cite their poor support level, and call on them to essentially change their DNA, or fail in the Enterprise market. Well, I say, Google, don’t try to change, take advantage of who you are, and cater for the right market. As consumers we all (?) use Google services – they are great, when they work, **** when they don’t. Service is non-existent – but we’re used to it. Google is a faceless algorithm, not people, and we know that – adjusted our expectations.

Whether it’s Search, Gmail, Docs, Spreadsheets, Wiki, Accounting, CRM, when it comes from Google, we’re conditioned to try-and-buy, without any babysitting. Small businesses don’t subscribe to Gartner, don’t hire Accenture for a feasibility study: their buying decision is very much a consumer-style process. Read a few reviews (ZDNet, not Gartner), test, decide and buy.

The way we’ll all consume software as a service some day.

Update: As an aside, the Read/WriteWeb article that inspired this post demonstrates the “enterprise software sexiness” issue, which was started by Robert Scoble and became a Firestorm, per Nick Carr. I really think it’s a very thoughtful post, which, quite unusually for Read/WriteWeb sat alone at the bottom of TechMeme, then dropped off quickly. Now, has this not been about Accounting (yeah, I know, boring) software by Google, but, say adding colors to Gmail labels, in the next half an hour all the usual suspects would have piled on, and this would have taken up the top half of TechMeme. smile_sarcastic

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Zoho in the Entertainment Business?

You read it here first: Zoho must be planning to take over the entertainment business. Need proof? Just watch the promo video for Zoho Creator Mobile version. Gone are the screenshots, canned demos… it’s all Life 2.0 smile_shades

Hm… I hope his sweethearts’s phone number is not real … otherwise he’s got competition for that movie.smile_tongue

On a more serious note: Zoho is mostly known for their Office Suite and are often compared to Google and Microsoft, when talking about documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Database management and application generation are often overlooked, probably since Google does not have anything to offer in these areas. But Zoho does, and in fact that’s the application that attracts the largest active user base. Creator allows non-tech-types (like yours truly) to easily create fairly sophisticated applications, which are often shared by dozens or hundreds of users. There are about 60K (!)applications developed in Creator, used by over half a million people. (Side note: there must be a fair amount of redundancy among 60 thousand applicationss, and while you can share them publicly today, I’d like to see Zoho develop the search / categorization tools to easily locate them; a sort of “marketplace” even if there’s no actual money flow.)

We can’t really talk about Creator without mentioning a related product: Zoho DB. While Creator is an application generator, DB is primarily for data manipulation, analysis and reporting. Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu explains the differences here.

Computerworld recently listed Zoho Creator amongst the Five free Web apps we can’t live without. There is also a blog started started by users, entirely dedicated to Zoho Creator, with special focus on using it as a small business software platform: Land of Zoho Creator.

(Disclaimer: I’m an Advisor to Zoho.)

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Zoho Suite Gaining Muscle

If you follow the online productivity / collaboration market, you’ve probably noticed that Zoho, the company that earned their fame releasing new products at breakneck speed is slowing down. But are they, really?

I think they are just going through adolescence – you know, the stage when you can grow muscles fast. smile_wink They’ve been silently updating several of their products in the past months. Today’s Writer update includes support for pagination, headers, footers and spell checking in 43 (!) languages. Incidentally, some of these are the very features the Burton group listed as missing from Google Apps in their recent report titled “Google Apps in the Enterprise: A Promotion-Enhancing or Career-Limiting Move for Enterprise Architects?” The original report is 55 pages long, but here’s the InfoWorld summary:

Microsoft Office has a huge lead in features over Google Apps, the Burton Group says, giving these examples:

— Documents: “Google Docs does not support a table of contents, headers, footers, automatic creation of footnotes or end notes.” …

Although the Burton report focused specifically on GAPE (Google Apps Premier Edition), it could be construed as criticism of the the web office market in general. Well, with today’s updates Zoho Writer meets all the Burton Group “requirements”. In fact, Zoho delivers most of what the Burton study considered missing features outside Documents, in the areas of spreadsheet(Sheet), presentation (Show), custom business applications (Zoho DB & Creator) , web conferencing (Zoho Meeting), and wikis (Zoho Wiki).

Several of the above services received updates in the past month – sometimes announced, other times silently appearing, without further ado. In fact that’s an obvious benefit of using web applications: the enhancements are simply available, without the need to apply annoying patches (I could go on listing failed client-side updates from Microsoft, Macromedia, Adobe.. you name it). Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu explained his views on updates vs. new products recently. He is obsessed about eventually delivering the “perfect” web applications that fully stand up to Microsoft Office, and recognizes the limitations these services have today.

Frankly, I think he is a perfectionistsmile_wink and perhaps would not even need to go all the way…after all, the point in web applications isn’t simply to replicate the offline experience. Moving applications to the web opens new dimensions, namely mobility and easy, native collaboration. Today’s Writer updates are important, because in our legacy world the challenger is measured against the standards of the incumbent. But Microsoft Office was created at a time when the purpose of document creation was to eventually print it. In the 90’s we thought we’d reach the dream of “paperless office” only to see paper-consumption grow dramatically. (Secretary prints email, faxes it to boss, who makes hand notations, faxes it back for secretary to type again…smile_angry). Today, in the age of better online collaboration (that you can NOT manage on paper) and ergonomic large screens, who prints anymore?

So while I recognize the importance of layout-oriented features (user acceptance), the real value to me is in real-time collaboration (co-editing), version control and restore, embedded chat, web-conferencing, linking, linking and linking – the things that make web documents live. On a side-note, this is why I am surprised that the latest Web Word Processor entrant, Buzzword, beautiful as it is, does not support entering URL’s and real-time co-editing: those omissions defeat the purpose of being on the web.

By the same logic I find Box.net’s Openbox a significant move: it allows to store one’s files online, while making it really easy to use a range of services, initially including Autodesk, Echosign, eFax, Myxer, Picnik, Scribd, Snipshot, Thinkfree, Twitter, Zazzle and Zoho on those files. There will be users who prefer the All-in-one concept, and they will likely settle on Google (bigger brand) or Zoho (more and better apps), but others will prefer picking their individual services, and for those Openbox is a good platform. Choice is good.

Related posts: Wired, CenterNetworks, Mashable, web 2.0 weblog, Zoho Blogs.

Update (10/17):  Google Docs added footnote support.

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Yes, the Enterprise Software World Changed Today

Yesterday I went out on a limb predicting that SAP’s new On-Demand mid-market offering, codenamed A1S will be a game-changer. ZDNet quoted my conclusion:

My bet is on SAP: they may stumble a number of times, which will effect their quarterly numbers – but in the end, I believe they will succeed. They will become the dominant SaaS player in the mid-market, forcing smaller players like NetSuite down-market. In the next 2-3 years while SAP flexes their On-demand muscles, we’ll see just how pervasive SaaS proves in the large corporate market, and that will determine whether A1S remains a midmarket solution or becomes the foundation of SAP’s forey into that market – their natural home base.

This was the day before the announcement. This morning my fellow Enterprise Irregulars jokingly asked: “Has the world of Enterprise Software really changed?’ We did not know the answer than, but now we do: Yes. SAP Business ByDesign is really a game changer. Key reasons:

  • Breadth of functionality
  • Fixed, Trasnparent pricing (which, I might add will put the squeeze on Salesforce.com ad NetSuite)
  • All this coming from SAP, the recognized leaders in automating business processes.

I will soon have more details, but suffice to say the Enterprise Irregulars contingent here came to the same conclusions. Here are the initial reactions:

ZDnet/Software, Rough Type, Redmonk, Computerworld, WSJ.com, ZDNet/IT Project Failures, The Ponderings of Woodrow, ZDNet/Software as a Service, Between the Lines,

Photo: the Enterprise Irregulars with Henning Kagermann, SAP CEO. Credit: Prashanth Rai

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The World of Enterprise Software Will Change Tomorrow

I really would have liked to be at TechCrunch40, temporary HQ of all-things-Web. Instead, I’m in New York, where the world of Enterprise Software will change tomorrow. That’s when SAP will unveil A1S, the new generation SaaS solution for the SMB market. Incidentally, this may be the last time we hear A1S, as SAP is expected to reveal a new name.

I suspect after Wednesday there will be a lot of talk about the new system’s features, but for now, very few people have actually seen it, and they are all under rock-solid NDA. So for now, just a few preliminary thoughts.

SaaS and Enterprise Software

I am a big fan of Software as a Service, have repeatedly written about it, but mostly in the context of the small business or consumers space. My own passion comes from the time when I switched from “sell side” in the SAP business to actually being a customer in a small business (Sales VP, NOT IT type!) and was shocked at the sorry state of infrastructure and systems (more lack of) available to most SMB’s. I became convinced that for small businesses that don’t have IT staff at all, On-Demand solutions are the only way to go.

Does this mean SaaS is for small businesses only? Not at all. While it’s easy to declare that for small businesses without their own IT resources there is no better option than SaaS, there is no clear “winner” for large corporations. There shouldn’t be. SaaS is not a religion; adopting it should be a business decisions that these organizations have to make individually.

SAP and SaaS

On-demand “purists” (the religious types;)) have long criticized SAP for being laggards, taking a half-hearted hybrid approach to SaaS – but why would they do anything else? After all, SaaS is still only 10% of all enterprise software sold, although growing fast. Even if we believe “the future is SaaS” (which is of course unproven, but I happen to believe in it), there is a lot of mileage left in the “old” Enterprise model, and market leaders like SAP have certainly no reason to turn their backs to their huge and profitable customer base. Protection of the legacy market is largely the reason behind the segmentation, i.e. A1S being strictly a small- and midmarket solution – but I don’t believe this segmentation is cast in stone.

Anyone who saw one of Hasso Plattner’s numerous “new idea” presentations will have to realize he is talking about a lot more than just a new SMB product. Plattner “gets it” and if he does, so will SAP. Clearly, for now the product is slated for the SMB market – new product, new markets – but it also allows SAP to get their feet wet in SaaS, before fully plunging in.

This also explains what may appear as inconsistency at the low-end of the market (less than 50 employees) where SAP continues to offer Business One, their on-site solution. I fully agree with Dennis , for all the above reasons it’s exactly these businesses that would be better off with SaaS, so perhaps Busiess One should be replaced by A1S. But if SAP considers A1S as a test-bed, eyeing the Enterprise Market, they need a certain minimum organization size, and level of complexity. Complexity, after all, originates in the organization, not the software – but this brings us to the next point.

So why is it such a Big Deal?

Believers of the “SaaS Religion” should be happy when a behemoth like SAP throws in it’s weight – and the $400M it expects to spend on marketing A1S. But let’s dispel with a huge misunderstanding here. I literally go nuts when analists (even my fellow Enterprise Irregulars) mention SaaS players like Salesforce.com, Netsuite, Succesfactors, Constant Contact on the same page, as one category. For the purpose of a specific analysis, like Charles did, it makes sense, but please, please, let’s remember, the so-called SaaS market is an artificial aggregation that eventually will make very little sense.

Companies do not buy software just for the sake of having it: they buy it to solve problems. They need inventory management, order and billing systems.. etc – not simply SaaS, just like in the past they could not care less if their software was delivered on tape, CD or DVD. Yes, I know I am simplifying to a great degree, but remember, It’s all about the functionality, not the delivery method.

So labeling Salesforce.com the “market leader” is misleading – yes, they are the the largest pure-play SaaS player, but a relative point solution with a fraction of the functionality enterprises need – and the Appexcange / Force.com attempt to become a platform has not changed this picture.

There is no market leader in On-Demand, complete integrated solutions, because so far no company has offered anything comparable to SAP’s functionality. Granted, I have not seen the system yet, but when SAP puts three tousand developers to work for 3 years, you know you are getting something significant. (In comparison Salesforce.com has less than 200 engineers.)

It’s all about Execution

The SaaS model allows for largely simplified business execution: marketing, awareness, “pull model”: instead off direct sales, the customer comes to the vendor, buying solutions on the Net. Consulting, Support all happens online. The reality of this pull-model is still debated, but I think waht’s often forgotten in the debate is that the “pull-efect” really works is the “S” part of SMB, (in fact, VSB), which are typically green-field businesses, often first-timers to transactional business software, without their own processes carved in stone, so they can test, configure and use software “out-of-the-box”. As we discussed, with size comes complexity, and since SAP targets the high-end of SMB, they will face such complexity, and that requires a “hybrid” model.

So far their Go-to-market strategy appears to be largely based on telesales and leaving support to a network of partners. Where these partners come from: existing All-in-One or Business One partners, or new ones – and if the first, how they will not cannibalize their existing business is a huge question.

A1S is a big bet for SAP,” said Gartner analyst Dan Sholler. “This has to succeed or they will have a whole host of business challenges ahead of them. No one has ever proven they can sell this type of business technology this way. SAP is betting the profitability of the company that it will be able to do it.

My bet is on SAP: they may stumble a number of times, which will effect their quarterly numbers – but in the end, I believe they will succeed. They will become the dominant SaaS player in the mid-market, forcing smaller players like NetSuite down-market. In the next 2-3 years while SAP flexes their On-demand muscles, we’ll see just how pervasive SaaS proves in the large corporate market, and that will determine whether A1S remains a midmarket solution or becomes the foundation of SAP’s forey into that market – their natural home base.

SAP understands New Media

Last but not least, a word on how SAP “gets it”. Part of Hasso Plattner’s “new idea” sounds like a Web 2.0 pitch: he embraces social networking, wikis, videos. How much, if any of these have made it into the first incarnation of A1S remains to be seen.

But SAP as a company themselves actively embrace new media. They have the best bloggers’ program, originally started by Jeff Nolan and now enjoying continued support by Michael Prosceno. I’m heading to the Big Show on Wednesday, but first tonight I’ll be in a group of 8 bloggers to meet SAP CEO Henning Kagerman. Two weeks later I will attend SAP TechEd, which, for the first time includes a full Community Day – an event certainly to be popular by bloggers. Oh, and who is the first keynote speaker? Mr. Web 2.0 Tim O’Reilly himself.

Not exactly dinosaur-like behavor, if you ask me.;-)

Off now, time to play tourist in Manhattan. And, in the meantime, I’ll be kept more then up-to-date on TechCrunch40 thanks to fellow bloggers on the scene.:-)

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Dell Warming up the Storage Paradox

Michael Dell has warmed up IDC’s Storage Paradox during his town hall meeting today. IDC originally estimated:

“the world will produce 988 exabytes of data in 2010 – but only 601 exabytes of storage will be available.”

Dell’s accelerated version:

“This year the amount of digital data will surpass the digital storage capacity available. If we don’t do something, we are going to lose that data.”

Like I’ve said before, I’m not worried:

  • Last I checked, data storage was not a natural resource, it is manufactured. Why wouldn’t market forces take care of balancing demand and supply?
  • Just where exactly would the excess “data” exist? Right now I am typing this post – but if I don’t save/post/send it, it does not get stored anywhere, it won’t become data – it won’t exist at all. (for simplicity forget caching and autosave). Does IDC count our thoughts as data?

Clearly, Michael Dell must also realize the paradoxical nature of this statement, since he offers a solution: the Dell PowerVault MD3000i.

The On-Demand model is another solution, effectively reducing storage requirements: since we work natively online, it will be easier to share & link, we don’t have to send and store redundant copies of the same file.

Related posts: Between the Lines, InfoWorld and The Register

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Software 2007: Plattner to Turn the SAP Mothership Again

Photo Credit: Dan Farber, ZDNet For half an hour or so I felt I was back at University at Software 2007 – in Professor Hasso Plattner’s class. That’s because his keynote was a compressed version of his recent SAPPHIRE 07 speech, which in turn was an “offsite class” for his Stanford students – literally so, he flew the entire class out to Atlanta. To make his point, he used the blackboard-metaphor, with chalked handwriting (and dressed in matching blacksmile_shades).

I don’t normally enjoy keynotes, but found this one fascinating: it was about a lot more than most in the audience thinks – more on this later…

The “lecture” was about his New Idea for enterprise software – more than an idea, it started as a side-project about 5 years ago, then about 3 years ago they realized they can’t do it with one codebase.. so it became a completely separate system from SAP’s current business suite. They kept the project secret as long as they could, but this year they started to talk about it: it’s code-named A1S, and currently 3000 people are working on it (For comparison, Salesforce.com has less than 200 engineers). It will be On-Demand, and not a point-solution, but a full-featured, integrated business solution, as one would expect from SAP.

Some of my raw notes on the key concepts:

  • On-demand: Google, Salesforce.com showed it works. Time now for the whole enterprise to run in the cloud. Very small footprint at customer.
  • New markets: small business customers.
  • Key difference: user-centric design. Iteration, version 7 of user interface already, it will be 8 or 9 before it launches. Every single functions delivered either by browser or smart client. They look 100% identical. Office (MS) client, Mobile, too.
  • Separation of UI, App, Db – physical sep, multiple UI’s for same App. Front ends very specific to industries. Portal based. Company, departmental portal. User roles. Multiple workplaces. In smaller companies users have multiple workplaces. High degree of personalization.
  • Event driven approach. Model based system. Instead of exposing source code, expose the model. Not just documentation, active models. Change system behavior through models. Very different from SAP’s original table-based customization. Completely open to access by/ to other system. 2500+ service interfaces exposed.
  • The future of software design will be driven by community. SDN 750K members, 4000 posts per day. We’ll have hundreds of thousands of apps from the community. Blogs, Wikis, Youtube.
  • In-memory databases. Test: 5years accounting, 36 million line items. 20G in file 1.1G compressed in memory. Any question asked > 1.1sec. There is no relational database anymore. Database can be split over multiple computers. Finally information will be in the user’s fingertips. Google-speed for all Enterprise information. Analytics first, eventually everything in memory.

For a more organized writeup, I recommend Dan Farber’s excellent summary, and for the full details watch the original SAPPHIRE 07 Keynote (after a bit of salesy intro).

As it became obvious during the post-keynote private press/blogger discussion, most in the room thought Plattner was talking about the mysterious A1S, SAP’s yet-to-be-seen On-Demand SMB offering – although he made it clear he intentionally never used the A1S moniker. I think what we heard was a lot more – but to understand it, one has understand Hasso Plattner himself. No matter how his formal position changed, the last active SAP Founder has always been the Technology Visionary behind the company – the soul of SAP, it there is such a thing.smile_wink He is not a product-pusher, not a marketer: he sets direction for several years ahead.

SAP has an existing (legacy) market to protect, and they clearly don’t want the On-Demand product to cannibalize that market. But Plattner knows On-Demand is coming, and I bet the SMB space will be the test-bed to the new system eventually “growing up” to all of SAP’s market segments. Hasso Plattner gets the On-Demand religion, and when he gets a new religion, SAP typically follows. Plattner oversaw two major paradigm changes: the move from mainframe to client/server, which was entirely his baby, and the move to SOA/Netweaver, where he embraced Shai Agassi’s initiatives. The ‘New Idea” will likely be the last time Plattner turns the Mothership around. Next he will need to find “another Shai” to make sure there is a strong tech DNA in SAP’s leadership, as the Sales/Marketing types take over at the helm.

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Freshbooks Launches Benchmarking Service: SaaS Will Never Be the Same

Way back at the Office 2.0 conference FreshBooks CEO Mike McDerment dropped a bomb in the last 20 seconds in his presentation: being software as as service, they can aggregate customers’ data, categorize it by industry, size ..etc, and once they do that, why not turn it into a service, providing customers with their own performance metrics as well as benchmarking them against their peers.

A few months later, the Small Business Report Card service will launch tomorrow at the Web 2.0 Expo as well as online. The service will be free to all Freshbooks customers, who will:

  • all receive their own performance metrics, and
  • if they select their peer group based on (currently) 80 types of business / professions, geography and several other business criteria, they will also receive their relative position, “score-card” within that group.

The sample below is a mock-up of the actual Report Card, but is shows the initial metrics reported. Clearly, as they further enhance the program, there will be more and more criteria, and FreshBooks customers will have a say in what performance metrics they find valuable.

Remember, FreshBooks’ customers are mostly small businesses who don’t have an army of MBA-types crunch the numbers and look for business (in)efficiencies. In fact it’s probably fair to say some would not even know how to interpret the numbers, until they are put in prospective – hence the value of relative benchmarking.

But why will SaaS never be the same? This isn’t just about FreshBooks and its customers.

It’s *the* hidden business model enabled by SaaS. An opportunity not talked about, but so obvious it has to be on the back of all SaaS CEO’s mind. Benchmarking is a huge business, practiced by research firms like Forrester, Hoovers, Dunn and Bradstreet, as well as by specialized shops like the Hackett group – none of which are affordable to small businesses. More importantly, all previous benchmarking efforts were hampered by the quality of source data, which, with systems behind firewalls was at least questionable. SaaS providers will have access to the most authentic data ever, aggregation if which leads to the most reliable industry metrics and benchmarking.

Being pioneers always carries a risk, and clearly, Freshbooks will have to keep an eye on their customers feedback. There may be a backlash due to data privacy/ownership concerns; some customers will not opt in, they may even lose some customers entirely. But I believe the majority will see the light and benefit from the service. If Mike’s blog post on the subject is any indication, the feedback there was overwhelmingly positive, with 13 comments for, 3 against.

I suspect a year or two from now benchmarking based on aggregate customer data will be standard industry practice, and little (?) FreshBooks will be looked upon as the pioneers who opened up the floodgate of opportunities.

Last, but not least a word on the creative launch – or a lesson on how to launch from a conference you don’t officially participate atsmile_wink:

Yugma is a web-conferencing company and an exhibitor at Web 2.0 Expo. What better way to demo a web-conferencing product than by showing real-live use… without Yugma having to move a finger to create content. They created Stage 2, a platform for companies to showcase their products remotely at the Yugma booth and simultaneously to the World through a Net broadcast. Both the presenters and Yugma win – congrat’s, and my personal Creativity Award to Yugma thumbs_up

Update (4/19): read Jeff Nolan’s comments.

Update (10/8/2008):  Congrat’s to Freshbooks for getting on  Fox Business.