The word â€˜serviceâ€™ is increasingly becoming a bit of a buzz word, encompassing anything from SOA (Service-Oriented Architecture) to SaaS (Software as a Service). I think this is part of the increasing trend towards providing users (SaaS) and developers (SOA) with the ability to access just the information they require on demand and is an extension of the Web 2.0 movement.
It may very well lead to software being fragmented into it’s component parts, and being made available to users to syndicate and mashup – allowing new and interesting apps to emerge tailored to precisely the user’s requirements (more on this later). This is *really* important for business to consider, research firm Gartner forecasts that by 2011, 25% of new business apps will be delivered via SaaS, a jump from 5% in 2005.
SaaS allows users to access fully functioned software on the web through their browser without having to download anything (webmail is a great example of SaaS as opposed to a client side app like Outlook or Eudora). Users now have the ability to access software on a pay-as-you-use basis, giving the advantage that the application software can be upgraded on the fly without having to physically distribute it on a disc. This is an extension of the Beta zeitgeist that we see in Web 2.0 websites extended to full blown online apps (Rich Internet Applications or RIAâ€™s).
A virtue of this is that any work that takes place on a SaaS app can be accessed anywhere at anytime (as long as the user is connected to the Internet). If you think about webmail, it allows you to access your email from any machine without having to worry about the platform or location. This metaphor can be extended to the new generation of SaaS apps that imitate the Office application suite.
(which are both Word imitation RIAs) give you hosted disc space for free, allowing you to author a document anywhere and save it remotely on their hosted server. So, as an example I could author a document at home, get to work, login and continue to work on it (in the same way I can access my bookmarks anywhere on Del.icio.us or my photos on Flickr).
The other advantage this has is that social networking comes into play, as documents can be released for public (or limited) consumption and worked on collaboratively or shared and tagged. With ever increasing bandwidth and end-user processing power I can see the old 90â€™s paradigm of the Network Computer returning. One could envisage a future where all storage is remote, all applications are loaded from the Internet and the machine exists only to access the network and run the browser.
As this trend progresses, we can expect web pages to be used for what they were originally intended, pure information/content sources. No longer will we have to shoe-horn workflows into step-by-step page views (i.e. buying an item etc) but can deliver them in the most efficient manner possible, which might be via the direct manipulation paradigm.
So, if this all sounds great, what are the downsides to SaaS? Well an obvious one is that these apps require the user to be online for them to operate, so how would this work if Iâ€™m offline (i.e. I want to write a document whilst on a train). Well, already technology is working to banish this restriction. Apollo by Adobe is a runtime framework which allows developers to create a container in which flash/flex/html/ajax can co-exist, but more than that it allows a webapp to be run on the desktop, independent of the network.
So we could expect something like ThinkFree/Writely/Zoho to run within an Apollo container, so the user can seamlessly work both offline and online. So if we go back to the example just mentioned, a user could work on their document at home (whilst a network connection is available) and save it. They are then free to hop onto a train and continue to work offline, then when they reach their destination and again have access to the Network, Apollo would synch it up with the mainline server â€“ all without the user even realising it.
So if SaaS seems like the immediate future, then what lies beyond? Well, I think SaaS applications will evolve from being online facsimiles of desktop apps to a much more powerful suite of syndicated functionality from which the author can mashup their own personalised application, built to directly suit their purpose.
To help get your head around this consider how personalised homepages like NetVibes, Google/Yahoo allow you to create your own personalised information space. No longer do you need to navigate around several news sites to get the information you need, it comes to you, delivered in the way you want it, on demand, courtesy of RSS. This is precisely the sort of behaviour weâ€™d see, but not stemming simply from information but actual functionality. Application mashups will allow the author to create a personalised app using syndicated functionality, taking remixability to a whole new level.
For instance, I might create a purpose built app that lets me type in a search term, pick a result, get the page content, edit it (in a word type app), the re-publish as another web page. Yahoo Pipes already allows the user to easily create these types of mashups, and I expect we will see something like this extended to allow much more powerful SaaS mashups in the future.
No longer will software have to exist in a single silo, forcing the user to switch their attention between different applications. User will be able to access a particular function on demand and link software siloâ€™s together accessing just the slices they require.
So finally, where does the future of SaaS leave Usability and User Experience? Well in a very exciting position I think. Increasingly we will be released from the artificial barriers html imposes upon us and be able to have incredibly flexibility in the way we approach and solve problems. Information Architects will continue to play an important role in organising and structuring content, but Interaction Designers will truly be let off the leash!