Salesforce’s Dimdim Acquisition–Adding to a String of Collaboration Pearls

The SMB Group has followed (and used!) Dimdim, which has provided innovative, easy to use Web conferencing services in a freemium model with very liberal terms of use, for a couple of years. In January, Salesforce.com acquired Dimdim for $31 million.

Immediately after the acquisition, Salesforce announced that while Dimdim would remain “fully operational during the transition,” it would “no longer be accepting new registrations.” Instead, Salesforce is focusing on bringing Chatter and Dimdim together to provide what it terms “Facebook for the enterprise.”

What’s Next

Last week, we had a follow up briefing with Salesforce’s Mike Micucci, VP Product Management, and Steve Chazin, Senior Director, Product Strategy, to learn more about these plans. Essentially:

  • Salesforce will peel off the Dimdim front end and reconstitute Dimdim’s real-time collaboration capabilities into Chatter. This will give Salesforce a way to provide Chatter users with real-time presence capabilities, so users can see who else on their team is online and their status via a button on their Chatter screens, and start “in context” meetings on the fly.
  • Salesforce will focus initially on connecting internal team members via Chatter, but over time, will broaden this to connect partners and customers as well, integrating them with its Activa acquisition. (Salesforce acquired Activa, an enterprise chat startup that provides on-demand live chat software for customer service, support and online sales interactions last September).
  • The vendor will also explore incorporating audio, screen sharing and video capabilities from Dimdim into Salesforce as well.

While Salesforce is currently deferring to standalone Web conferencing partners (they actually conducted their briefing with us via Citrix GoToMeeting!) in the realm of scheduled meetings, I believe that its only a matter of time before they turn this service on, as users will want it.

Quick Take

With over 1 million registered users, it’s safe to say that Dimdim’s service will be missed by many SMBs–including the SMB Group!

But Salesforce has set its sights on a much bigger picture–one in which it is building, acquiring and integrating the components it needs to become a major player in the collaboration space. As we discuss in Moving Beyond Email: The Era of SMB Online Collaboration Suites, Salesforce’s collaboration strategy is oriented towards social media, real-time activity streams and tight  integration with its CRM offering.

The Dimdim acquisition gives Salesforce the ability to aggregate and integrate real-time capabilities across the Salesforce cloud, via a single mechanism, with multi-device access. Combined with its own Chatter platform, and acquisitions of Activa and GroupSwim, which provides collaborative semantic analysis technology (a fancy way of saying that it has technology that allows people to automatically analyzes and tags content with keywords in a collaborative way to make for easier, more relevant searching), Salesforce is stringing together an impressive set of collaboration capabilities.

Salesforce indicates that more than 60,000 companies have already deployed Chatter, and the vendor recently unveiled Chatter Free, a freemium service to entice non-Salesforce customers to the Chatter fold. With viral routes into both installed base and off base customers now in place, look for Salesforce to give the existing collaboration powerhouses–Google, IBM Lotus and Microsoft–an interesting run for the money.

What is Hybrid Computing, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published on June 9, 2010, in Small Business Computing)

What is Hybrid Computing?

A hybrid computing platform lets customers connect the packaged small business software applications that they run on their own internal desktops or servers to applications that run in the cloud.

As discussed in What is Cloud Computing and Why Should You Care?, more software vendors are deciding to develop and deliver new applications as cloud-based, software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions. This model helps them reach a broader market and serve customers more efficiently and cost-effectively. And, because cloud computing can often provide significant cost, time and ease-of-use benefits, more companies are choosing to buy and deploy cloud computing solutions instead of conventional on-premise software as new solutions needs arise.

However, most companies will continue to use a combination of both traditional on-premise software and cloud-based SaaS solutions. Think about it: You are unlikely to get rid of an application you’re running in-house just to swap in a SaaS solution. But if you need a new solution, you’re likely to look a range of options, including SaaS applications, to fit the bill. In some newer areas — such as email marketing or social media management — this may be the only way solutions are even available. In cases where you have a choice, you may simply decide that the SaaS model makes more sense, or that traditional deployment will work better for your company.

Why Should You Care?

Many software vendors with a strong presence and customer base in the traditional packaged or “on-premise” software world are developing platforms that provide new SaaS solutions that extend and integrate with their traditional on-premise applications. Some vendors provide app stores or marketplaces to make it easier for you to find solutions that will work well with those you already have.

For instance, Intuit has developed a platform and Intuit’s Workplace App Center so that customers can find and try applications that work with QuickBooks and with each other. Microsoft’s Software + Service strategy is designed to connect a myriad of Microsoft’s traditional software applications to Web-based SaaS solutions.

Recently, Sage launched its Connected Services offerings, designed to connect users of its traditional packaged software offerings with online SaaS services. The Sage e-Marketing application, for example, connects ACT and SalesLogix users with online email marketing services, while many of Sage’s accounting solutions connect with its new Sage Exchange online payment processing.

These vendors realize that most companies will use a mix of on-premise and SaaS solutions for a very long time. While companies can get some value from using some point solutions in a standalone fashion, in many cases, you’ll need to integrate the new SaaS solution with an existing on-premise application — such as integrating payroll to accounting and HR, or social media management to contact or customer management application — to get the value and efficiencies you need.

From the standpoint of their own corporate interests, vendors can increase revenues and profitability by selling existing customers new SaaS services (either their own or those of their partners) to connect to and extend on-premise solutions they’re already using. Having a strong SaaS play that is integrated with their on-premise solutions also helps them protect against competitive SaaS-only vendors that could steadily encroach on their turf.

More altruistically, these vendors want to offer their customers the means to bridge between the on-premise and SaaS solution worlds more easily. After all, it can be very confusing to even sort through and differentiate between all the solutions in a given category, and expensive and time-consuming to integrate them so they work well and easily with what you’re already using.

What to Consider

Most small businesses run at least a couple of on-premise software applications that are critical to their business. For instance, it’s a good bet that accounting and financials are on this list. Other applications will vary depending on the business you’re in, but could include things such as solutions to manage contacts and customers, projects, human resources, logistics or a function specific to your industry.

As you identify and prioritize new requirements to streamline and automate additional tasks, think about the overlaps they’ll require with workflows in the core on-premise solutions and processes that you’re using. For instance, if you decide you want to streamline payments processing, does your accounting software vendor provide a payments processing service that can easily snap into the accounting application?

By taking advantage of the SaaS offerings available from a vendor’s hybrid computing platform, your new solution will generally be up, running and integrated with the core application much more quickly. However, keep in mind that as you snap more services into that core on-premise application, your reliance on that anchor application will grow — arguably making it harder to switch should your needs change.

NetSuite’s SP 100 Program: An Offer VARs Can’t Refuse?

In a bold move to get traditional value-added resellers(VARs) off the SaaS fence, NetSuite announced its new Solution Provider (SP) 100 Program, which gives business application VARs 100% margin on the first year of license subscriptions they sell. The program requires a 2-year minimum license commitment from the customer, and after the first year, NetSuite pays VARs 10% margin on recurring annual license fees. Prior to this program, NetSuite had offered VARs 30% of annual license sales.

NetSuite’s SP 100 Program targets established mid-market and enterprise ERP and CRM VAR’s and consultants, including VARs selling Microsoft Dynamics, SAP, Sage, Epicor, Deltek, and others. The program is not exclusive—VARs can continue to sell their packaged business software offerings as well. NetSuite is also extending the program to it’s current solution provider partners, and it includes all other SP program perks, including sales and technical training, sales cycle assistance, and marketing support.

Background:

Since the model got off the ground over 10 years ago, SaaS vendors have argued that SaaS can open the door for VARs to create a recurring revenue stream, and free them up from low margin IT service chores to focus on generating higher value business.

But the case has evidently not been strong enough to entice the masses, for a few key reasons. First, the recurring revenue model is radically different to the conventional business applications model, where VARs earn a large upfront commission for selling a business solution, hardware and infrastructure software. Second, VARs have balked at not being able to generate income from services necessary to deploy and maintain business applications on customer premises. Third, whether real or perceived, many VARs don’t trust SaaS vendors. Deep down, they think that after they make the sale, SaaS vendors will take control of the account and soon disintermediate them entirely.

Quick Take:

NetSuite’s SP 100 Program supplies VARs with the big upfront payment that they are accustomed to. NetSuite’s own side-by-side VAR revenue comparison to Microsoft Dynamics favors NetSuite of course, but VARs can try it and do their own math to see how it proves out without having to give up selling competitive packaged software. It’s an opportunity to get up to speed on SaaS, the cloud and recurring revenue models and develop their business consulting skills.

As important, it comes at a time when the SaaS model has proved its maturity and staying power, many VARs have lost deals to a SaaS vendor, and many customers are trying to avoid big upfront capital outlays. While some VARs will remain skittish, distrustful, or even just lethargic about adding a SaaS solution to their business management portfolio, I think NetSuite’s SP 100 will be big wake-up call for many VARs.

Microsoft–Still Relevant, But No Longer Dominant (Redux)

Last week, former Microsoft VP Dick Brass wrote a very
thought-provoking op-ed in the New York Times entitled Microsoft’s
Creative Destruction
which sparked some interesting
commentary from media, industry insiders and observers, and so I
thought I’d toss my two cents into the mix as well. Where should I
begin? Since the dotcom boom, people have been predicting
Microsoft’s doom in almost every market that it’s in, from browsers
to search engines, smartphones to music players. Around  2002
or 2003, when I was an analyst at Summit Strategies, one of our
annual predictions was something along the lines of
 “Microsoft–Still Relevant, But No Longer Dominant”. Okay, we
were probably a little ahead of our time. But I think that the
times have now caught up with this prediction, and it sums up
Microsoft’s market position fairly well today. As the Brass article
states, Microsoft’s biggest coup was to make desktop computing and
personal productivity software ubiquitous and affordable. But
in recent years, the company has not been an innovator. Like so
many other companies in our industry, Microsoft has found that it’s
original, game-changing innovation can be a tough act to follow.
Seibel Systems (which invented CRM), Digital Equipment (which
revolutionized the industry with mini-computers) and Wang
Laboratories (which invented word processing) leap to mind. In
each case, the paradigm shifted, but they were exceedingly
reluctant and slow to follow. Seibel didn’t believe customers would
ever buy  CRM in a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, but
eventually launched a SaaS offering after watching Salesforce.com
eat its lunch. Digital and Wang both resisted PCs–in the eyes of
their CEOs, no one would want a PC when they could have a dumb
terminal hooked up to a mini-computer, or a computer that just did
word processing. While I don’t think Microsoft is on a path to
extinction, it is does appear to be suffering from a similar
mindset that led to these dinosaurs’ eventual irrelevance and/or
demise. Over the years, I’ve observed a pattern that when other
companies build better mousetraps, Microsoft often dismisses their
relevance and importance until the market demands that it pay
attention. As a result, it has become more of an imitator than an
innovator, with companies like Google, Apple and Amazon beating it
to market to create the new categories that can really spike
growth. So far, Microsoft’s dominance in the operating system and
desktop productivity markets has funded it’s catch up game in new
areas, and it continues to hold a huge market share advantage in
these spaces. However, as profitable as these areas still are
for Microsoft, competitors are whittling away, even in these
strongholds. Not only are Linux, open source and Apple making
headway, but Google is intent on making the traditional desktop
operating system irrelevant for the average user. I agree with Dick
Brass–Microsoft has a lot of creative, talented people but has
lost much of its original, innovative spark. Is this due to
internal politics and bickering, as Brass contends? It’s probably
best left to Microsoft insiders to determine the exact cause. But
 from the outside in, it looks to me like Microsoft needs some
new leadership that will change the current climate and re-orient
the business so that Microsoft can regain its creative edge and
start shaping the future with it’s own innovations.


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.

Can Standards Clear the Clouds?

With market adoption of cloud computing forecast to skyrocket, no one in the tech industry wants to be left on the ground. But, as cloud computing platforms, models and definitions multiply, they’re becoming as numerous and diverse as Mother Nature’s clouds—and just as easy for customers to get lost in.

Last week, Ben Worthen blogged in the WSJ about how the tech industry’s “old guard”—including Cisco, Citrix, EMC, HP, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Novell, Red Hat, VMware and others—are forming a new group, the Open Cloud Standards Incubator, to develop standards for cloud computing. Their objective is to define technical standards to ensure that businesses can easily move information between clouds. But, as Worthen noted, there’s just one hitch–the new guard of Internet behemoths, such as Google, Amazon.com, Salesforce.com have yet to get on board.

 Vendor Politics vs. Customer and Partner Interests

Commercially, each vendor is the anchor tenant of its own cloud, with a vested interest in strengthening and extending its cloud footprint to upsell, cross-sell, and tighten their bonds with customers. Internet companies have had their own secret sauce for a while, and have used it to their advantage. For instance, Amazon has its own AMI standard, which allows customers and partners to build their own Amazon-standard clouds; Salesforce.com has Force.com, which speeds application development for the salesforce.com platform.

While vendors’ internal standards make it easier and quicker to develop new solutions, on their platforms, however, there is a catch. Commercial developers have to place careful bets on which clouds platforms will be provide them with the best market potential. Today, Salesforce.com may look like the best bet—but in two years, maybe Microsoft will offer a better opportunity. But, unable to afford development and integration costs for multiple cloud platforms, many smaller players will get stuck on a cloud.

Meanwhile, as more of a customer’s solutions get tied into those of an anchor vendor, it becomes increasingly difficult for the customer to extricate itself from a cloud, or to integrate applications that reside in different clouds.

 A Ray of Hope

While history and cynicism make me skeptical about whether its possible for this group—or any other–to gain the critical mass necessary to ensure broad-based cloud interoperability, I do see a ray of hope.

Developers and customers are sick of vendor lock-in, and the risks associated with it. Part of the promise of cloud computing has been freedom—the ability to deploy and run IT solutions quicker, better and more easily and affordably. Developers want the freedom to transport their applications to multiple clouds as new market opportunities present themselves. Customers want the freedom to integrate applications residing in different clouds, public and private. To make this possible, they need the economies of scale, cost and time-to-market benefits that standards can provide.

It’s still early going for cloud computing. Vendors may have to put aside some of their own bickering, and clear the way for cloud computing adoption to live up to its promising forecasts.

Reading the Top Trends Barometer at the 2009 Small Business Summit

Just got back from Small Business Summit 2009—an awesome event put on by Ramon Ray (www.smallbiztechnology.com) and Marian Banker (www.primestrategies.com ) at the Digital Sandbox in New York City. Turn out for the Summit was terrific, and attendees were treated to a great, interactive agenda including speakers, experts, sessions and networking—hosted by Ramon, who is a terrific at working a room.

On the train ride back up to New Hampshire’s frozen tundra, I started writing a blog about the hot topics that jumped out at me during the event. A feeling of déjà vu quickly came over me as I realized I was getting a great read on the trends I had blogged about in my last post, 2009 Small Business Trends: No Longer Business as Usual (just scroll down to the next post for this one). Based on the interactions I had with small business people and vendors at the Small Business Summit,  I think these trends are gaining momentum even more quickly and forcefully than I’d anticipated just last week. So in this post, I’m revisiting these trends with new, fresh evidence from the Small Business Summit that underscores how quickly they are taking shape.

1. Catch the social networking wave. Social networking took center stage at the Summit. Keynote speaker Bob Pearson, chief social media guru for Dell, kicked off the event with his presentation and set the tone for the rest of the day. Bob explained why social networking is so important, and provided down to earth recommendations that your grandma could understand about how small companies can get in the game. He encouraged people to “just get in and do some science experiments” and learn as they go (check out this link for Dell’s primer on social media: http://www.facebook.com/dellsocialmedia). Attendees couldn’t get enough information, asking lots of questions about where and how to set up blogs, how often to post, how long their posts should be, what does Twitter work best for? A few people said that they were going to start blogging right away, and the tweet volume rose through the roof! Furthermore, the vendors at the show are walking the walk themselves, creating, monitoring and responding across the social media spectrum.

 2. Demand solutions that do more for less. Well duh! Of course this is big. Gene Marks, Marks Group PC, emphasized that now is the time to re-negotiate everything, high tech or low, from insurance and rent to IT vendors and consultants. Ramon’s discussion of how to get free publicity through media coverage was spot on, of course.  Panelists and speakers representing a diverse group of vendors and solutions highlighted the abundance of free and low cost solutions available, designed especially for small businesses.  For example, on demand and software-as-a-service vendors were well represented, with the likes of Microsoft Office Live, Google, Campaigner and InfusionSoft on hand. Intuit was promoting its free QuickBooks SimpleStart, and free six-month trial for Intuit Payroll Online.

3. Find fresh technology alternatives more appealing. The audience at this event knows that they will have to work smarter, not just harder, to survive and thrive through this downturn, and come out ahead of the competition when things turn up again. Elance presenter Brad Porteus made a compelling case for using online freelancers for all those pesky jobs you need to do—but don’t have time for. This generated a lot of buzz—one of the attendees piped up that she was going to get an Elancer to track her brand across the Web. Attendees also asked a lot of questions about how they could use technology to become more relevant and create more value for their brands and businesses. They wanted to know things such as how and when to use videos, podcasts and polls, and how to use collaboration tools to foster improved communication and project management build the group dynamics they’ll need to rise above the competition.

4. Favor software-as-service (SaaS) over packaged software that they have to buy, install and manage. As I noted above, many of the vendors at the show were featuring SaaS solutions. What I didn’t hear were many attendees voicing concern about SaaS security or data ownership issues. What I did hear were many conversations between attendees and vendors, with attendees trying to figure out if a particular on demand solution would work to satisfy a specific business requirement. A clear signal that  that the issue of on demand versus on premise is becoming a moot point. Campaigner, which offers on demand email marketing, was a hot spot. Email marketing—like most application areas—is still very underpenetrated in terms of small business adoption. But economic conditions are sending these companies a loud wake up call to take action. They’ll look for an easy, fast on ramp to try, buy and get results—and find SaaS solutions fit the bill.

5. Increasingly turn to non-Microsoft desktops and servers. Ok, this wasn’t a topic that came up at all during the event, so this is all based on my very casual observations. It just seems that everywhere I go, and at this show as well, there are more and more people pulling out MacBooks instead of Windows notebooks. I think that many of the new solo entrepreneurs that will emerge from the layoffs will opt for Macs. Sure, Macs cost more than Windows PCs, but many people suffered a lot of problems with Windows PCs. When  they have to spend their own hard earned money, I think these newbies will turn to Apple in greater numbers.

6. Innovate beyond what we can anticipate.  What can I say, other than spending a day with small business people and vendors who are committed to the success of small businesses is inspiring! Small businesses didn’t get us into this mess, but they will pull us out. Many of the vendors had great examples of their small business customers using their solutions to innovate. I could see the gears spinning as people thought about ways they could apply a couple of the tricks they learned when they got back to their office–or just as likely, their home office. Their drive, energy and creativity will lead to new business models, products, services and solutions that will revitalize the economy.

I’m already looking forward to the 2010 Small Business Summit to see how fast these businesses will run with some of these things, and will be very interested to see where they’re at next year. In the meantime, if you are part of a small business, let me know what’s at the top of list to help your business in 2009.

 


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2009 Small Business Trends: No Longer Business as Usual

In 2009, it’s no longer business as usual. The sharp economic decline has led many small companies to slash operating costs and cut staff to the bone. In the wake of small businesses’ initial shock and awe, uncertainty has become the new normal.

With little fat left to trim, small businesses that want to stay in business will turn to technology solutions to help optimize talent and streamline business processes to get back on a growth trajectory.

Some of the technology trends that will take shape as a result are that small businesses will:

1. Catch the social networking wave. Reduced marketing budgets and headcount will tempt more small businesses to social networking to spread the word about their businesses—and tap into customer and market opinion and demand. Look for small businesses to start figuring out how to take advantage of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, etc. for no and low cost viral marketing. These businesses will also tap into the mobility angle, as vendors extend more social networking capabilities to more mobile devices.

2. Demand solutions that do more for less. With economic anxiety growing and budgets shrinking, “Easier, cheaper, better, faster” is the bar that vendors must meet. Transparent pricing and service agreements are a must; and vendors must  prove early on in the sales cycle that their solutions increase revenues, improve profitability and/or reduce risk. Those with blurry value propositions will not survive.

3. Find fresh technology alternatives more appealing. Barack Obama’s election signaled one thing loud and clear—people are ready for change. Small businesses are too. Their minds will be much more open to a new generation of solutions to help differentiate in the market, reach more customers, and pursue new business models and opportunities.

4. Favor software-as-service (SaaS) over packaged software that they have to buy, install and manage. The SaaS model is now about 10 years old. To date, adoption has been steady but gradual. Dramatic reductions in capital budgets and headcount mean that companies will be much more likely to consider SaaS alternatives seriously than ever before. The fact that all the big guys—Microsoft, IBM and Google—now have on demand offerings will also accelerate adoption.

5. Increasingly turn to non-Microsoft desktops and servers. Despite the price premium, those small businesses that are tired of dealing with Windows problems, will turn to Apple in greater numbers. At the same time, netbooks will pick up share in small businesses when workers are using the Internet most of the time and don’t need a lot of desktop horsepower. Likewise, value-priced plug and play server and software appliances (usually built on open source software), which bundle up a complete solution and require no IT management, will start eroding Windows server sales. Look for security, storage and collaboration appliances, along with pre-packaged solutions that zero in on specific vertical industry needs.

6. Innovate beyond what we can anticipate. Continuing economic uncertainty is a recipe for the unexpected. Hundreds of thousands of people are being laid off every month. After a few months of sending their resumes into the black hole of Internet job sites, many will decide to strike out on their own and do something new. Business innovation among both startups and established small businesses will be on the rise, and so will the opportunities for technology vendors that can create solutions to enable this innovation.


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My Top Takeaways from Lotusphere 2009

As always. IBM’s Lotusphere has been chock full of announcements about new products, upgrades and partnerships. At Lotusphere, “resonance” was the overarching theme, framing the benefits of having multiple applications work in harmony to amplify the benefits of individual solutions, and create better business outcomes (or something like that, I’m paraphrasing here!).

One level down from that, I see a few top takeaways that cut across individual announcements and point to where IBM Lotus (which I’ll abbreviate to Lotus for the rest of this blog) is heading. Here are the takeaways that bubbled to the top for me.

1.    Expect Lotus to take a bolder marketing stance. In the past, Lotus has been reluctant to go head to head with obvious rivals, particularly Microsoft. But in the opening keynote, Lotus executives came out swinging, declaring intentions to “drive the decline of the Office Suite”, “shatter Windows” and “change desktop economics” with Symphony, the free Lotus desktop suite. Likewise, Lotus is positioning Foundations, which bundles e-mail, file sharing, document management and backup in a turnkey server appliance, aggressively against Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS). While I don’t expect Lotus to get as edgy as Apple has done with its Mac versus PC ads, I think we will see a feistier IBM Lotus persona going forward.

2.    Substantial, long-term strategy and investment to broaden the Lotus market. Large enterprises have always been a Lotus stronghold. But, running Lotus on premise can chew up a lot of IT resources, putting it out of reach for most small and medium businesses (SMBs), and branch offices in larger firms.  After some past unsuccessful attempts to field solutions for these businesses, it looks like Lotus finally has a handle on creating easier, simpler and more affordable solutions. The vendor is taking a hybrid approach, with a mix of customer premise and cloud solutions. LotusLive (www.LotusLive.com, formerly codenamed Bluehouse) moves Lotus firmly in the cloud, offering  an easy software-as-a-service (SaaS) on ramp  for social networking and collaboration (with Web email coming soon via IBM’s planned acquisition of OutBlaze, www.outblaze.com). LotusLive  integrates solutions from cloud computing partners, and enables “click to cloud” integration with customer premise applications. Lotus Foundations comes at the market from the opposite direction, providing customers a plug and play on premise collaboration and email solution. While Lotus still has a lot of work to do to clearly position and market these solutions (along with several other appliance and cloud offerings within IBM’s broader portfolio) it’s on the right track to finally tap into this huge market opportunity.

3.    New momentum and vitality in the Lotus partner ecosystem. Partners have always been key to bringing complete solutions and added value to Lotus customers. But, while Lotus has enjoyed solid relationships with longtime partners, it’s often missed the mark in attracting fresh faces.  At Lotusphere, the vendor unveiled new and newly strengthened relationships that breath new life into the ecosystem. Not surprisingly, LotusLive and Foundations are fertile ground for many of these. Skype, LinkedIn and salesforce.com are working with LotusLive to create integrated collaborative capabilities. For instance, Skype will integrate voice and video to enable customers to directly connect to Skype contacts from LotusLive.  Meanwhile, Lotus Foundations is adding 80 new partners per quarter to its volume SMB channel, and working with ISVs to build turnkey industry solutions. For example, SRC Solutions (www.src-solutions.com) is building streamlined records and document management solutions for schools, healthcare, public sector and other verticals on top of Foundations. Lotus is also deepening relationships with more traditional partners, such as SAP, as well. The two announced joint development of Alloy, which will link collaborative and core business process applications more tightly for users. And Smart Market, a one-stop solutions shop for customers, gives partners a new vehicle to reach, sell and support customers.

4.    Going Mobile. Lotus and RIM announced new enhancements for the Lotus BlackBerry, adding new client capabilities for Sametime and Connections, and editing functionality for Symphony. The two also announced BlackBerry platform support for and Domino Designer for X Pages, so that developers can develop and deploy once for both Domino and Blackberry. While Lotus took some knocks for not moving quickly enough on other mobile devices—most notably the iPhone—it will almost certainly duplicate its BlackBerry initiatives with other mobile device leaders.

5.    Changing the conversation about collaboration and social software. Lotus will be doing this on several levels: extended collaboration, the value the openness brings to the collaboration equation, and the importance of using collaboration to optimize talent. LotusLive provides a great example of how Lotus is focusing on extending collaboration beyond the firewall with easy, secure on demand collaboration. Tying into the overarching resonance theme, the vendor will turn up the volume on the value of openness is maximizing the business value of an integrated portfolio and partnerships. Last but not least, I think that Lotus will turn more of the conversation to the fact that today, many businesses have already cut costs to the bare bone; the new challenge will be to grow the top line by enabling people to be  as productive as possible. Look for Lotus to progressively socialize (no pun intended!) the importance of using collaborative and social solutions to make collaboration more fluid and friction-free across the value chain.

On its 20th anniversary, Lotus is opening a new chapter in its story, offering up some new and convincing alternatives to the status quo, and extending its reach into new markets. By making these strategic investments now, in a turbulent economy, Lotus has time to get the kinks worked out, and get ahead of the game for when things turn around.

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