The emerging future: Software as electricity

There has been rumblings about software as a service and Web 2.0 revolutionising the way people work with their computers and data but very little to really illustrate this point. Whilst the average person is comfortable with having their email and chat hosted by Google, Microsoft or Yahoo the idea of businesses trusting third parties with hosting their software and data is a foreign one.

Companies like Google, and now Zoho are out to change this attitude with a direct push at the business marketplace. You know an I.T. concept has momentum when it has its own conference, and now with the Office 2.0 Conference there is a showcase for business orientated, software as a service applications. TechCrunch has been doing a very good job covering the new applications released during this conference. Zoho seems very interesting from a software capability perspective although successfully marketing this service within the industry as it stands today will no doubt be difficult. However it is probably more likely that Zoho is concentrating on their application feature-set with an end-game of being purchased by a larger company (Yahoo, AOL). This larger company will then rebrand Zoho and use it to compete with Google's emerging online office suite and Microsoft Office Live.

Whilst promising the major barrier to serious online office migration is psychological rather than physical. Arguably the Web applications and infrastructure exists to move many traditional office tasks and accompanying data to a remote, online environment. Sun's CEO Jonathan Schwartz has been talking and blogging a great deal about businesses ability to centralise and externalise their data-centers and in a completely practical world this makes sense. However the largest barrier to all this is people's assumption that the Internet will go down. Unfortunately in many places this belief is a reality, such as with low-end DSL/cable connections in New Zealand, but at the high-end Internet connections are just as reliable as electricity or other established services.

As Internet reliability improves there will come a time when network access is viewed in the same light as phone, gas and electricity services; as long as you pay your monthly fee it will work. When that time comes there will no doubt be a significant shift in offices from internally hosted identity, email, file services and applications to remote services maintained by third parties. The office space and infrastructure savings alone will justify the remote hosting costs and more importantly removing the headache of maintaining internal data-center infrastructure will, in theory at least, allow businesses to concentrate on the things they do best.

The company that stands to potentially loose the most from all this is Novell as their primary market is internal server infrastructure. In an environment where office server infrastructure declines Microsoft will still have the desktop whilst online companies such as Google and Yahoo will be at a greater advantage compared to Novell with their compartmentalised application suites. In this light it is especially unfortunate that iFolder, Novell's most promising product in this emerging environment, appears to have been put out to pasture without it ever gaining the emphasis or adoption it so greatly deserves. Whilst it will be a long time before software as a service and the whole Office 2.0 concept becomes a reality when it does I hope Novell is not caught napping like they were with every other technology change that has occurred in the last ten years.