As more and more vendors transform themselves into ASPs (application service providers), an interesting phenomenon has begun to take shape. Vendors who attempt "to eat their own dog food" find they're having to eat their own words as well. In short, many of the things they either took for granted or ignored are actually turning out to be critical when building a service based on any given set of technologies.
Take for example the efforts of Boogie Schafer and Steve Yen at a startup company called Escalate in California. These are probably two of the brighter engineers in a Silicon Valley filled with luminaries. Both men were key developers at Kiva, one of the companies that pioneered application servers. After Netscape acquired Kiva, Schafer and Yen continued to work on Kiva application server technology until the formation of the Sun-Netscape alliance.
Once Netscape and Sun teamed up, the two men decided to rejoin the original founder of Kiva, a minor industry legend named Keng Lim, to create Escalate. This startup, a provider of business-to-business e-commerce applications, makes its technology available through the ASP model.
Both Schafer and Yen play key roles in making sure that the Escalate service is highly modular and always available. Naturally, this set of responsibilities has given both of them a far greater appreciation for the IT skills needed to accomplish that task than they would have had if they had remained in product development.
This is because, if anybody has a problem with the technology Schafer and Yen developed, all they have to do is toddle down the halls of Escalate to get it resolved. When your customer is a fellow employee, you quickly gain new insights into the value of things such as high availability and application integration. As Schafer notes, these capabilities are no longer functions that can be provided only in add-on products because the capabilities become crucial as the technology gets more complex. As many of you already know, many of these add-ons are labelled "enterprise editions" of a product, which is a euphemism for a more expensive version of the product that actually works.
The good news is that as vendors move to embrace new ASP models, more and more developers are going to be exposed to the stark realities of the products they turn out because the people using those products may be working less than 100m away. There won't be an army of customer-service representatives and system integrators shielding them from the frustrations of the real world.
At Novell, they are already putting the pieces in place to create their own subscription-based service around the company's technologies. This will take them a while, but a big step in the right direction has been the appointment of former Novell CIO Sheri Anderson to the position of general manager of Novell customer services.
Anderson's background as a CIO has made her acutely aware of what customers actually experience. So one of her first moves has been to open Novell's laboratories to customers. This means that a customer can install a server in Novell's labs that will run alongside Novell servers used to develop the next versions of its various products. As each successive version of the product goes under development, customers can run that code on their own servers to get a first-hand look at what impact a new product is likely to have in their own environment.
No doubt this will introduce a certain amount of culture shock for product developers at Novell, but the insights that customers provide will be invaluable before it comes time to roll those products out.
We are a long way from bridging the divide that currently exists between customers and product developers, but the move toward ASP models can only make things better.
After all, once you've tasted dog food, you get an appreciation for people who truly know how to cook.
Michael Vizard is editor in chief at InfoWorld. Contact him at michael-vizard@ infoworld.com.