IT is expensive to buy, own and maintain. It’s dominated by complex systems that run multiple, and frequently dedicated, applications on many servers which are also pricey to both acquire and operate.
For the past 20 years, progress in IT support has largely pushed hardware to wire every facility, then wire each of its machines, then un-wire evolving smart devices that integrated one another while roaming the world. At the same time, specialized applications resisted integration as they grew fatter and more independent.
While your laptop can talk to your phone, desktop, and tablets, your email app won’t talk with Excel or QuickBooks. Facebook and Twitter seem like twin liners passing on dark seas. Word processors don’t communicate with databases. And thousands of hours are lost in the repetitive tasks essential to search out input stored in remote databases. Businesses anxious to face forward are too often frustrated by back-end problems.
“We’re beyond device integration and well into application intervention,” Alejandro Rosado, CEO of 12:34 MicroTechnologies tells us, “Apps are combining. To a small degree, Excel can talk with QuickBooks, both can output to email, messaging, Facebook or even Twitter. Automated application commvergence is making management cheaper, speedier, easier, smaller, and better. Right now a field estimator can make mobile entries from anywhere onto a pad to make an invoice happen. Plus the data simultaneously goes into billing, marketing, financial, production, human resource, cloud storage, and even logistic space.
“Till recently,” Alejandro continued, “this century’s commvergence waves involved expensive and splashy front-end digital management. Devices combined, systems integrated, Moore’s Law juiced momentum to invent, access, update, escalate, automate, bootstrap, scale, secure, and imagine. But now,” Alejandro pointed out, “application integration’s happening. If the apps of the last decade flushed out opportunities for users, complexity made them expensive because creating, integrating, and reworking apps demanded expensive tech people who can engineer programs then code them.”
More features for the money
Treff LaPlante, CEO of CitizenDeveloper.com (formerly WorkXpress), tells us that business and consumers, “want to build (their own) applications in the browser. It’s pretty clear there are certain standards or technologies we want to use because they are so much better so you’ve got everybody kind of standardizing around these technologies.”
As the 21st century rolled out business and consumer apps were designed to be literate in Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, and Android op-systems—along with many legacy iterations. “Even seven years ago,” Treff continued, “you had to put 30% of your budget to cross-browser (and cross-platform) compatibility—making an application work on Microsoft Internet Explorer or if it doesn’t work there, then on Chrome, Safari, Firefox or whatever. You don’t have to do any of that anymore. Now that 30% of the budget is going to features and functions.
“But even today companies find 40–50% of their application budget is going to things like scaling or security. The question is how do we economically build complex applications to work across thousands of users or diverse geographic regions given internet latency, engineering plus coding costs, and all of that?”
“Say you are a plumber in the field with an iPad,” Alejandro proposed, “which will draw data from myriad sources to create an estimate. The customer scans then approves it so that an invoice is immediately generated. Plus the application alerts billing, marketing, finance, line and group leaders, HR, and even logistics to target and order then purchase the most competitive parts. Finally it stores all of that accessibly on a cloud. Right now, all of that’s manual, but commvergence is developing both smarter devices and apps to talk with one another. Apps that no longer need to be written from scratch by an army of expensive developers.”
More features for less money
“Right,” Treff nodded, “Here’s where the latest round of commvergence is biting. You really don’t have to do any of that today because all of those stacks are being run by companies like Amazon and Google … so that if you just follow the architectural rules you can very quickly spin up applications that have the most modern appearances or themes, are responsive on mobile devices, will scale to tens of thousands of users almost instantaneously, and have secure internal communications. Freeing that 40–50% of the budget to other uses.
“There are so many things that we can now do to leverage this technology. What that all ultimately means is a faster development cycle: meaning more features for less money. Fifteen years ago you had people who specialized in desktop. But if you built a desktop app you had to make sure it worked on three different types of processors and 20 different types of mother boards and (at least) four different operating systems. A huge amount of resources went to compatibility issues (and again the specialized professionals who could execute app creation). And then if you fast-forward to the early days of the cloud you had very serious compatibility issues with back ends and virtualization or something else.
“You wound up,” Treff smiled, “spending all these resources dealing with scalability issues. What (this present wave of) technology has done ultimately allows the application developers to devote almost all their resources to application features rather than those invisible back-end things. And so companies get a lot more for a lot less. But this automation is incredibly important.”
“That’s right,” Alejandro grew excited. “Now there’s commvergence of apps and the applications which create them! How many things have come together to make that work? What has technology done to app development? There are now back-end materials from companies like Facebook or Twitter. They provide all the stuff necessary to universalize applications that firms can begin to build themselves.
The limits to app development
Treff quickly agreed, “On the front-end side, companies like Facebook and Twitter have released the frameworks that they’ve built internally. In the case of Facebook, it’s a framework called React/Flux, that allow developers to quickly build front-ends that really embody and enshrine the most modern thoughts about how front-ends should function.
“Twitter released a framework that they created called Bootstrap and that’s sort of a styling and a theme-ing framework that is fairly standardized now, so it allows developers to build a bootstrap compatible application. And because we did that there’s a world of themes already out there that we can literally just go get and install—we don’t have to style and theme all these things because we use Twitter’s Bootstrap. We don’t have to invent responsive frameworks which is what we had to do four years ago. We don’t have to that today because we are using Facebook’s React framework.”
Alejandro grew more animated, “At the moment the only limit to app development is humans—and their various incompatible cultures. I mean say you edited the Uber app to chauffeur a lady of the evening on a regular schedule in Russia where that sort of commerce is legal. Then say you brought it to Vegas where it seems to also be legal. Everything will work fine—until you take the app to Harrisburg or Lancaster where Uber cannot do that. We are, for the first time imagining cultural limits to our creativity that are stricter than the economic. We’re already seeing those limits imposed upon gambling applications.”
“Uh-huh,” Treff smiled, “Applications that were once frivolously expensive to develop are about to become more routine. For example, we don’t have to work on server clustering. If we want to scale to a thousand users or we want to work in different parts of the world we don’t have to build any of that. It’s all provided by Google.
The iPhone imposed ease
“And that all centers around the same thing because we can focus on building features that drive business productivity. It’s a real value that’s almost all back-end. People just don’t know about this stuff because it’s mostly in the infrastructure.”
“But,” Alejandro chimed, “the front-end in a lot of cases has led to back-end breakthroughs.”
“Yes,” Treff interjected, “a front-end product made all of this happen, 90% of the credit goes to the Apple iPhone. There used to be a big distinction between the consumer and business. When the iPhone released, it started teaching billions of people around the world that this stuff should just be easy. And it should have one button. And that you should have to download the app that you need and that customer shouldn’t have to go to school to learn how to use it.”
“My customers, like all users,” Alejandro laughed, “want everything to be easy. Who doesn’t?”
“And that’s happening. That Apple philosophy,” Treff countered, “drove a whole new wave of web applications and web products and frameworks and everything else because as Alejandro said, everyone just wants it to be easy. So that’s happening on the back-end … those principles are being enforced from the front-end. Productivity is what’s winning because of this.”
Remember computer literacy?
Remember when they said that everyone would become computer literate or become unemployed? And then computers became user friendly. Three-year-olds can routinely work an iPad. The demand for computer literacy is deader than the rapping of Vanilla Ice. Oh there’s still some barrier with respect to certain complex apps, particularly when they are industry-exclusive. Take CAD, QuickBooks, Photoshop, and a range of complex industry-specific apps that expect that users will bring industry, craft, or professional mastery to their use. There have always been industry specific tools, but some technical apps are still challenging to master.
“But even device mastery’s becoming less of a hurdle as apps merge,” Alejandro Rosado said. “Clerks at McDonald’s needn’t be computer literate since the company’s front-end apps are worker-literate. Instead of a clerk doing anything complex, she merely touches the appropriate food avatars, punches in the cash tendered, and the devices place orders then calculate and deliver correct change. Most people bright enough to take serious photos should have little trouble with Photoshop Principles’ new user interface. What’s important about the UI at McDonald’s though is that data passing through point of sale registers is pretty universally shared throughout the franchisee and parent corporations.”
How does HR cope?
Treff asked, “Suppose you have a worker who doesn’t know how to employ a technical function? You have two choices: (Path A) educate the employee—and some are incapable of learning the job. You’ve got to deal with that. (Path B) is you simplify the job. You make the job easy enough that you don’t have to do anything differently with the employee. But still they are able to achieve the results that you desire.
“This is a crossroads. Do you bring the employee up or do you simplify the work to get to this same place? There’s a certain minimum threshold of bringing the person up that had to happen. I think it has taken root. Kids today, they know more than we do typically about this stuff. But in the world of software development—we are bringing the work down to the point where the iPad user will be able to do the software development with no other training.”
“With customized applications that will increasingly be developed by managers in a firm’s own departments,” Alejandro added.
Treff agreed, “Right now, if you want to build applications you write code. And writing that code is complex, it is difficult, problematic. You hire these very smart people and pay them a huge amount of money and they write all this complicated code.
“As opposed to starting each app from scratch, people are advancing the construction of application archetypes to be nothing more than a configuration of settings. And that’s kind of the world we are in now. Meaning that there’re a lot of things that you can build without having to write code. Sure, right now it’s fairly complex at times to get what you want. That’s a little bit better and a lots less training required. People can get closer (and closer) to what they want.
“There will come a day very soon where people don’t really have to learn how to configure settings to get what they want. We are working internally in pioneering this. Why? When you can drive automation deeply into your organization you realize extreme productivity.”
“This wave is coming very quickly,” Alejandro agreed. “You can see it in the speed at which companies are moving to the cloud … last year I sold only five servers. Strategists have never been more open to change. Leaders see these opportunities while followers sense only a threat.”
Do no code writing
“And where we’re going with application development,” Treff explained, “is that you will be able to build an application simply by describing to the computer what it is that you want it to do in business terms. And the application is going to be able to do it. This isn’t futuristic—it is an emerging now kind of thing. An application will be able to recognize that you gave a business person’s request and it can ask you those other questions in a normal conversational kind of way.
“Suppose you want customized sales metrics, by division, by product, by scale, by seller, by market, by the moment? You want a dynamic sales management tracker that will report to selling, marketing, production, finance, distribution, R&D, accounting, and to every level of management. And the results are packaged to the needs of each divisional manager. Imagine similar apps or families of apps for each functional division of a firm or enterprise. And imagine that they are all spontaneously adaptable.”
“There’s a revolution happening in application development,” Alejandro added. “Companies and consumers will find that at reasonable costs they can get into this game to empower scores of users to both merge existing software and to build their own.”
Treff LaPlante has watched businesses massively accelerate profitability by driving software automation deeply into their organization. “What’s changing over the next three to five years is … if a company is not thinking about, ‘How do I get rid of all those spread sheets and data bases and one-off software systems that I’ve got sprinkled throughout my organization?’ And if I am not thinking about how to get rid of all those piles of paper, and not thinking about setting up key performance metrics throughout the organization that software reports on real-time: If that’s not how I’m thinking, I am not really planning for tomorrow’s competitive environment.”
Max your value proposition
“When you start to enforce this discipline among your sales and marketing operation … well, there is something within say a 100-employee company that is repeatable and it works. And you need to latch on to that, you need to drive process automation into that, attach key performance metrics around that process automation.”
While the first wave of efficiencies will be productivity gains, this stage of commvergence, “applies just as much to the performance side as to the operations delivery side. They are linked. When you start running an automated back-end process, your customers start to notice that they are getting fulfilled at a higher quality level and possibly even at a better price. You have that side of the benefits.
It’s this complete expansion of commvergent infrastructure that will occur over the next three to five year strategic planning cycle. This new automation’s impact upon a firm’s value proposition will be enormous.
Both Treff and Alejandro are optimistic that this wave will free smart companies to differentiate themselves. That’s what we are seeing and doing.
“These tools,” Treff concluded, “won’t make your business smarter but make you smarter about your business. That’s really the issue.”