Thought for the day:Who's serving who?

Hard-hitting IT commentator Dr Simon Moores gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.

Hard-hitting IT commentator Dr Simon Moores gives his personal take on the hot issue of the day.

Software as a service. Does it have a future? It's a question I'm trying to answer as my Virgin train lurches uncertainly on its way home from a seminar in Birmingham.

You've heard the sad story. Once upon a time it was ASP (applications service provision) but nobody really wanted it, understood it or could afford it.

Faced with its own obituary, it then became xSP or managed services (MSP), fractionally more attractive as an acronym, but hard-pressed to find customers who were prepared to take the risk or believe the promises being made for it.

Today, what was once ASP is becoming increasingly mixed in with Web services. Where one starts and another ends remains a grey area for the analysts.

ASP, you remember, started as a really clever way of delivering the popular and heavier Office-type applications to a thin client over an Internet or VPN connection.

It was really Citrix by another name and explains why the company - in conjunction with Microsoft - was seen as the driving force behind the idea. The trouble was at the time that the communications wasn't up to the task and the sheer cost of setting up the infrastructure, invariably made applications delivery more expensive for the customer than simply buying software licences.

For the ASPs it was rather like building a Disney theme park in the Midlands, relying on the rail network, with trains like the one I'm sitting in, to bring the customers, the last mile, to the door. It is, arguably, cheaper and more comfortable to fly directly to Florida.

Software as a service is now becoming much more about smart Web-enabled applications, as it should have been in the first place. True, the likes of Telewest are now in the business with partners such as 7Global, and those big Microsoft Office and messaging applications can be provided by their services, such as Blueyonder.

There are, however, many more examples of true Web-enabled applications appearing from ISVs, my favourite being Equology, the e-commerce development and Web hosting service for small businesses that I use for my own Web site.

ASP has changed, it has grown up but very few people have noticed and are even prepared to find out, given the industry's dismal track record for reliability. In this country, cheap broadband isn't just good for the home user; it's likely to have a major impact on the managed service market in the small business sector. Fast reliable access to component applications is going to make companies more confident about the ASP/xSP model.

The future will be one of mixed applications. Some will be local and others will be distributed along ASP lines. Today you don't think twice about using a resource such as over the Web and, perhaps, Office from your company server.

Over time, you'll find yourself mixing and matching applications depending on how frequently they are needed and how heavy the use might be. Some will be more cost effective as "pay per view" apps, a market that Microsoft is developing through .net; others will be rented from ASP/xSPs and the remainder will be available locally.

In the end, ASP will be less about technology and more about choice. While the acronym may be tired, the process behind it is gradually creeping into the way we work. Before long, we'll take for granted an idea that hundreds of millions of wasted vendor marketing money could never achieve.

Can ASP save you money and serve you right? What are your views? >>

Zentelligence: Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and ramblings of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.

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