Intuit Partner Platform: Changing the Rules of Cloud Platforms with Federated Applications

Cloud platforms, or “platforms-as-a-service” (PaaS) are quickly becoming a key channel for application developers. By writing and publishing their applications to integrate with those of a major PaaS provider, such as Salesforce.com or Microsoft, smaller developers can gain instant access to a large installed base of customers.

With so many vendors creating their own clouds, however, it’s easy for software developers to get lost in them—or potentially, locked into in a cloud. After all, it takes a lot of time and effort to write an application that conforms to the requirements of a particular cloud platform. Smaller developers, without extensive resources, have to place their bets carefully, as they may not have the resources to rewrite their applications for different environments when a new or better opportunity arises.

But recently, Intuit unveiled a new capability called “Federated Applications”, which opens up the Intuit Partner Platform to developers that have existing software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications built on other cloud platforms, programming languages or databases. Instead of having to rewrite applications from scratch, developers can use basic XML integration to configure or “federate” their solutions with key integration points, including the user interface, billing, account management and permissions, data and single sign-on to ensure that their solutions integrate with QuickBooks and other solutions on the Intuit Workplace. For example, the partner solutions that Intuit announced at its launch—Expenseware, DimDim, Setster, Rypple and Vertical Response–are built on a wide range of different platforms.

Intuit also provides a wizard to help developers create their pricing plans, and checks each application to ensure that it meets Intuit security and privacy requirements. Once the process is complete, applications are published to the Intuit Workplace, where four million small businesses and their 25 million employees that use QuickBooks can access them.

With its Federated Applications model, and tremendous presence in the small business market, Intuit is poised to change the rules for cloud computing platforms, both for small business developers and customers, as well as rival PaaS vendors. Intuit’s model makes it much easier and faster for developers to leverage existing investments and reach a new market than for PaaS competitors without this capability. In turn, millions of Intuit customers get access to one-stop shopping, account management, connected data, and single sign-on for applications in the Intuit Workplace.

Intuit’s business model represents a dramatic shift from that of the current PaaS gorilla—Salesforce.com. In the Salesforce model, every user of any AppExchange solution must also pay a platform fee to salesforce.com, whether they need to use the Salesforce solution or not—a tax that many small business customers, in particular, are unwilling to pay. In comparison, Intuit charges Workplace developers a percentage fee (typically 14% to 20%, depending on volume) when they sell their solution on the Workplace. In return, developers get a sales channel, platform services, and a friction-free route to Intuit’s large installed base.

By lowering the bar to entry to its platform so significantly, Intuit’s federated approach makes it easy for developers to place a bet on the Intuit Workplace. Intuit customers, meanwhile, can look forward to a flood of new solutions that will work with QuickBooks. At the same time, its more likely that these solutions will be available on other cloud platforms, should the customer decide to move to another accounting solution. Seems like a win-win-win for Intuit, its partners and its customers—and a challenge to PaaS competitors with more proprietary models.

IBM Lotus Foundations: A Real Choice for Small Businesses and Partners

As I mentioned in a blog I posted after Lotusphere 2009, IBM Lotus has been reluctant to go head to head with obvious rivals, particularly Microsoft. At Lotusphere, however, the company came out swinging, declaring intentions “shatter Windows” and “change desktop economics” with Symphony, the free Lotus desktop suite, and compete aggressively against Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) with the IBM Lotus Foundations appliance.

This new, feistier approach is paying off–as evidenced by the IBM’s announcement that it has signed up 1,000 Microsoft business partners for Foundations in just five months. I’m sure existing IBM Business Partners are liking this approach too. In the same blog post, I polled the question “How aggressive should Lotus be in marketing against competitive Microsoft solutions?” 62% of readers answered that they should “Take it to the limit–otherwise no one will pay attention.”

I first saw learned about the Lotus Foundation appliance at Lotusphere 2008, when it was still in development. I admit, I was skeptical—IBM has had a lot of false starts in the small business arena (remember when it acquired Whistle back in 1999?). Furthermore, Lotus hasn’t been a small business brand in years, and IBM usually refrains from aggressive, head-to-head competition against Microsoft.

But I went, and I saw, and this time, I think IBM is doing it right. I’ve had several demos at different IBM events, and Foundations makes good on its pledge to provide small businesses with an easy to use, turnkey collaboration solution—really! Foundations offers file storage, advanced backup and recovery, connectivity and security, collaboration and email and application services in one integrated package. Some of the things that set it apart include:

  • Automated installation and configuration; it discovers and maps the network for you, and auto-configures firewall and VPN, so you can deploy it in 30 minutes or less.
  • Automatic data backups, and full system recovery if a disaster should occur.
  • Symphony office productivity tools are bundled with, so you don’t need to buy Microsoft Office software.
  • Under the covers, you get the reliability and cost benefits of Linux and open source technologies (Foundations is priced less than Microsoft SBS servers), but you don’t have to know a thing about Linux or these technologies to run it.
  • It has the collaboration power of Lotus Notes and Domino, tailored for small businesses, with Notes clients for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

As important, IBM has factored in what’s often the biggest hurdle to getting momentum for new product: inertia. Outlook users can continue to use Outlook with Domino Access for Microsoft Outlook. And, IBM added VMware virtualization to Foundations, so you can also run Windows applications on it. Customers don’t have to give up things they already use–Outlook and Windows apps, such as Intuit QuickBooks. And, I almost forgot—you can also get a 30-day free trial, and it’s black and yellow, like a bumble bee.

The small business technology market and the channel partners that serve them are at a turning point. Many businesses are tired of dealing with the cost and complexity of Microsoft products and licensing, and channel partners are deciding that they need another option for serving customers that don’t want to deal with these hassles. This time, IBM is in the right place, at the right time, with the right solution, to give them a true alternative.

What Will Social Networking Displace?

Just a couple of years ago, many people were still debating whether digital social networking was just a flash in the pan. With social media growth surging, that that debate is over. People have moved on to try and figure out where social networking is headed—as evidenced when I Googled the “future of social networking” and got 542,000 results.

Now of course I didn’t read all of them, but a couple of very high-level themes surfaced across the ones I did read. First, a combination of factors, including the generational shift, rise of cloud computing, and the increasingly mobile and decentralized nature of both our personal and professional lives will make social networking ubiquitous. Second, several major issues need to be solved for social networking to live up to it’s full potential.

Some are technology-centric, such the need for open standards to make it easier for us to manage and share our contacts, profile information, permissions, etc. across and between multiple different social networks, or better integration of contextual information, or better options for protecting privacy. But, as important, on the business side, there appears to be almost universal agreement that social network operators will need  to figure out how to create sustainable, profitable business models.

Which led me to start thinking and talking to people about how social networking could replace stuff that we already pay for. After all, social networking platforms are much more user-friendly than most traditional software applications out there.

Here are some of the ideas that cropped up about things businesses and consumers spend money on today, that social networking could replace and monetize:

  • Media distribution, management and monitoring, ala Businesswire or Marketwire.
  • Email, instead of using Outlook, Gmail, etc.
  • Corporate collaboration platforms, such as Microsoft SharePoint and Exchange.
  • Marketplaces—from online dating sites to job boards to eBay. LinkedIn has had a job postings site for quite some time.
  • Email marketing.
  • Local newspapers (check out Yelp).

Not everyone will buy into social media right away, and it may take a while for it to become truly “ubiquitous”. But, social networking will continue reshape how we communicate, interact and transact business, and social networking vendors will find ways to monetize their work. The question isn’t if, but when and what social networking will displace. I’m sure there are many other possibilities, and would love to know what you think.

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