Friday, September 28, 2007

The Experience Mashup: Mash-up the Desktop with the Web

Mash-up is a word that one hears frequently these days. Definitions of the word are still evolving - there are data mash-ups, consumer mash-ups and business mash-ups. that are beginning to be understood by a small population of developers and vendors.

I think that we are at the beginning of the evolution of the word mash-up, and what it means. Basically, mash-up is a mixture. One can mix data from different sources - as done in data mash-ups, one can present in novel intriguing ways - as done in consumer mash-ups, and one can present it in unique way to bring out some aspect of the data which is now visually easier to recognize - as done in business mash-ups. But those are only the early mash-ups, the first-borns, if one may say so, of a species that will soon thrive and multiply.

One mash-up, that I think is just on the horizon, is the mashup of user experience. A mash-up that will enable users to experience information where they want it, regardless of where they are at this time. Whether on their desktop, or on a web site.

Experience web news when on Word. Or experience a Excel table, when viewing stock news on a financial news and stock movements. Mash-up information interfaces and tools and enable a seamless user experience of information where they want it, without worrying about which interface tool they should pick up. Not just about data, but about user experience. A mash-up that merges our private desktop world, with the outside web world, and in a manner that puts us in control.


Friday, August 17, 2007

The One Interface to Bind Them All

The Browser. Thats the one interface that people think would bind them all - all the multiple data sources. Whether the information comes from the ever expanding web, or from deep within the enterprise data ravines, or from Excel files, or from E-mail stores. If you want to reach it to more people, just put a browser on the face of the data store, and you are on! Bingo!

A large part of that is true. The browser indeed has changed the boundaries of the information repositories forever. The browser has enabled information to be served to people in self-serve modes and has created the internet revolution.

But lets not get carried away. Browsers are great for many applications, and are woefully inadequate for some. Firstly, browsers have to be told where to go. Further, browsers open up in different windows and force me to switch my context. Browsers work only on desktops. Browsers do not enable me to mix data from more than one source. One browser page per site. Browsers do not allow me to add my own stuff and store it away for future use. Browsers do not enable me to create my own format - my own view of data.

Because of this, despite a decade of the browser being born, the desktop applications are still there, and will continue to live. Further, with the growing complexity, there will be- and are - more interfaces that I would need to do my job. Interfaces that would track things for me, interfaces that would enable me to work on my documents that I store on my machine, interfaes that would bring me data wherever I am, without forcing me to change my context.

I want information to be available wherever I am. I may want it when I am creating a report in Word, or creating my family contacts in Outlook, or as I track my recent investments in a stock. And I find that using a browser to look up information is not as productive as I like it to be. No wonder, I have multiple applications on my desktop as I work, and as I flit between applications and web pages, changing my context, and cutting-pasting across windows several times during even 5 minutes. Worse is, when I am away from the office and away from my desktop.

Surely, there is a better way than a browser. The browser does what it does admirably. But does it do all the things that I want it to do? Is it possible to create a browser that is a one-interface-that-binds-them-all?

A Swiss Army Knife has many tools. There are multiple things a woman needs to do. How can one tool do them all?


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Well, why not Duet?

It seems to me that it was time I spoke about some of the things that I do like about Duet from SAP and Microsoft. No, it isn't a change of heart - I still think Duet has a long way to go before it delivers on what people expect it to be - but there are several things that are right about it.

For one, Duet is right in providing a solution to the friction between the workflow-enabled-business-process SAP world and the personal colloboration based Outlook world. It helps a user perform work flow transactions from within Outlook. It helps users look up data, compare it with previous history, and finally, complete the transaction from right within Outlook, and have it reflected in SAP.

Secondly, Duet does a decent job in providing the context sensitive data elements along side the automated e-mail generated, so that the user can effortlessly do the job. Further, it intuits the users context reasonably well with its integration with Outlook objects, and succeeds in providing a reasonably intuitive delivery of information.

Thirdly, the experience is seamless, and yes, it does look pretty. Prettier than SAP screens.

If Duet could connect to more data sources besides SAP, and enable users to build their own pathways inside Outlook and enable their work-flows, it would be loved by CIOs and users alike, notwithstanding its heavy middleware and upgrade costs.


Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The connected 'Office": The Microsoft Version

The MS Office applications are a big part of the desktop, and for years have faced the same fate as the MS desktop. The MS Office applications have been disconnected with back-end process applications and web data stores, and users use Cntrl-C and Cntrl-V to navigate across the two worlds.

Office Business Applications, aka OBAs, is a product from Microsoft to change that. OBA provides a mechanism to connect Office to back-end Line of business applications. With OBAs, information workers can connect, interact and perform business transactions with Office as a front-end. Sounds good, does'nt it?

But of course, OBAs will only run on the recent versions of Office. OBAs are built using Microsoft Visual Studio for Office, and under the hood, are deployed on Microsoft Office Sharepoint Server, and as given in the Price Management example here and SCM example here, runs on Microsoft middleware stack, on top of an enterprise application. Considering that this is a offering from Microsoft, this was expected. Does'nt Microsoft always want to have it all?

OBAs could be built in other ways and without adding all that stack from Microsoft. Extensio has built its own set of OBAs - which we call as Extender for Excel, and Extender for Outlook, on a SOA backbone. It is free of any Microsoft middleware components, and the server can even run on Linux. And yes, it is built on older Office interfaces of Microsoft and can run on Office 2000+ installations.

Things are beginning to get interesting!


Duet is not doing as well as it should be...

Someone called it the Duet sad song!

It is now out in the open. Steve Ballmer acknowledged at the keynote for Software 2007 that Duet has not done as well as it was expected to.

Not surprising. Afterall, Duet could connect only to latest versions of SAP- AND could work only with Office 2003+ versions - AND had no development framework - AND required a whole bunch of middeware from SAP and Microsoft both - AND enabled only a few limited value packs that enabled a handful of SAP transactions though Office. With all that onerous bunch of software under its hood, and the steep upgrades it needed, Duet really did deliver too little.

So, what could happen next? Would Duet be given a quiet burial - or would it be re-packaged and re-sold as a newly christened Office Business Application aka OBA, this time around only by Microsoft, and only with Microsoft stack? Something tells me that it would be the latter.

Could it be that Microsoft just used Duet as a pilot for its own OBA run? Nasty of me.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Vista Gadgets would need Vista on the desktop to run

That is an obvious statement.

There are many of us who wonder why gadgets would not run on XP. Because there are many of us who do not want to upgrade to Vista, for lack of sufficient reason to do so. Why buy a more expensive OS when the current one suits us fine? There are others, desktop gadgets - mentioned in my earlier posts - which do not require Vista, and can run on Windows 2000+ machines.

Power to such alternatives! May their tribe grow!

- Sangeeta

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Desktop Getting Crowded, but why only Vista Desktop?

The race towards offering the best connected desktop is hotting up. Already there were quite a few players that had created desktop-resident technologies with Yahoo and Google being the heavy weights from the web space, and of course, Microsoft with its Vista Gadget offering - after all, Microsoft does own the desktop. But there are more players getting added in every month, and that too, more of the enterprise types than the consumer types.

Hyperion is a case in point. With its recent announcement of Smart Space Gadgets , Hyperion delivers, I quote - "always-on business intelligence (BI) and BPM to knowledge workers throughout the enterprise" from its BI application. Smart space gadgets run only on Vista, so I guess it can get rolled out only after the next desktop upgrade cycle. I saw BEA making a similar annoucement some time back.

But desktop connectivity can also be made available on desktops without Vista upgrades. Yahoo Widgets, for example, runs on all Windows 2000+ machines, and so does Google Desktop.

Then why this preference to Vista gadgets? Specially since Vista hasnt exactly seen a upgrade wave as yet. Incidentally, clever strategy by Microsoft - using their hegemony at the desktop to enter some other area. In this case, it appears that Microsoft wants to enter the enterprise back-end. They have done this earlier - piggy backing on some existing products to enter other areas, and with devastating effect. This time around, other vendors seem to be helping Microsoft to succeed in this upgrade-to-Vista-to-get-personalised-gadgets strategy. Interesting.