A highly undesirable series of unfortunate events has led me to the task of researching "software as a service" and "online software," and the rise of the squeaky clean "Ajax." Any number of pundits, some smart, some not so smart, have hailed the arrival of online software as everything from the death knell for Microsoft (craftily descried, but barely, lurking on Slashdot, by the always yummy Abnormal Returns) to the answer to infectious disease and immortality. Mark my words, before long Google will be slicing your bread and brewing your coffee from a data center in Fuscha, Seattle. (We just need enough bandwidth at the retail level to push the coffee to the customer).
Of course, Google is typically described as the chief beneficiary of these developments, and indeed, Google's "Docs and Spreadsheets," as one example, are quite cool to play with. You will note, dear reader, that my choice of words here is quite deliberate. For now, these applications are toys and they ignore a general mantra that the strength of a chain is only that of its weakest link or, to be a bit more pejorative, KISS (which Laura the debt bitch yesterday reminded me means "keep it simple, shithead.")
You see, to my way of thinking my data and my processing of said data belong on the machine I own. The one sitting right in front of me and which (almost) never leaves my side. For those of us who cannot live without our data, even for a ten minute period, mandating online access to it seems absurd.
"Oh, but with the increasingly pervasiveness of fast internet because of wireless hot-spots and broadband internet..." Hogwash. For years the mavens of internet providers everywhere talked about "dialtone reliability," (i.e. your internet simply works whenever you call on it. Like picking up the phone and getting a dialtone) forgetting, naively in my view, how unreliable plain old telephone service actually was (is). Introducing a bunch of infrastructure (and therefore more staff, maintenance, support and manufacturing resources) between me and my data (or my processes) just adds more people who reside daily on the left hand side of the bell curve to the critical path between me and the stuff I need to get to in order to get my work done. (Read: Cost in every sense of the word).
We went through this with Oracle and the "dumb terminal" game. Once the lines go dark, your terminal is (by definition) dumb. That means you, dependent on the terminal and lacking even a slide-rule or an abacus since the Oracle sales guy gave you everything you needed with the dumb terminal and a network connection, are also dumb when the lines are dark. Even if you are very smart you are still dumb because even a human computer like you (yes, you in the basement at 85 Broad, with the 800 GMAT score) is pretty useless without the data.
Haven't we been down this road before? Back then they were called "big iron," or "mainframes," no? Yes, I'm sure of it. I'm sure of it because I've written about it before.
So is Microsoft dying? Yes. But Google isn't killing it because "software as a service" (which is merely a clever way to charge you monthly for something you should be able to own in perpetuity because of the strong downward pressure on software costs) is going to destroy Microsoft. Microsoft is destroying (has destroyed) Microsoft because it has become an uncreative tumor, growth unchecked, resource hungry and greedy without really providing much of the useful functionality that clever, more nimble firms still consider instrumental to the technology industry. (This should, crystal ball like, give one a glimpse of Google's not-so-distant future, I think).
Still, every time I hear someone sing the praises of software as service revenue I roll my eyes and picture "Ralph," the union back-hoe operator pulling up a fiber optic main, writing a blog post with my e-mail client while sitting on an unconnected airplane, or imagine myself working diligently on my laptop, finishing by candle light a spreadsheet during one of the summer's increasingly common blackouts caused by increasing strain on decades old and barely adequate power infrastructure.
Call me a Luddite, but I think I'll invest in utilities with aggressive grid growth reinvestment policies instead.