Mobile options multiply. This is one of the obvious trends, as it's clear that tablets and smartphones are the preferred interface for executives, salespeople, managers and even not-so-mobile employees who accept that there are no longer barriers between work life and home life. Every credible cloud apps vendor is addressing mobile, but one standout is Salesforce.com, which offers native apps as well as growing HTML5 support.
There's no single right way to support mobile, so look for options. Does your vendor (or prospective vendor) have separate native apps for tablets and phones that do justice to each form factor? If not, has the vendor progressed to HTML5 content that adapts to a range of devices? If the vendor relies solely on Web-based access, has it at least designed with mobile browsers in mind? If you still see scrollbars and tiny buttons that were designed for mouse-and-keyboard interaction, it's not mobile-friendly. Try before you buy.
[ For more on what to expect in the coming year, read Outlook 2013 in our latest all-digital issue. ]
Embedded analytics proliferate. Here's another established trend that's sure to keep growing in 2013 because users naturally want reporting and dashboarding options right in the context of the apps they use every day. One standout on this front is Workday, which offers particularly deep and configurable embedded analytics.
What should you look for? Start by considering the out-of-the-box options for reporting and dashboarding. Next, consider the configurable options. Can you bring external apps and data sources into the mix, or is it a stovepipe of analysis of data generated within the app? What's the latency of the data -- will the reports and metrics show up-to-the-minute data, up-to-the-hour data or yesterday's information? Don't forget to consider the analytics embedded in mobile apps. Can your phone truly be smart if it's not serving up metrics and dashboards? When it's mobile, it really should be up-to-the-minute data.
The need for insight usually goes beyond the confines of a single app, so it's important to consider partner offerings and options for working with well-known BI systems and data warehousing platforms. Salesforce.com has a panoply of partner options, while Microsoft (with Dynamics CRM Online), Oracle (with Fusion Apps, Taleo, RightNow and so on), and SAP (with SuccessFactors, Business ByDesign and other cloud options) offer ways to work with their popular respective BI and data warehousing platforms.
Configuration options abound. Configuration options are quickly replacing the need for customization across all applications, whether delivered in the cloud or on-premises. That's because most organizations want to avoid developing and maintaining custom code. In the configuration approach, the vendor supplies menu- or wizard-driven interfaces that let you expose industry-specific functionality or set company-specific controls. Workday, for example, uses configuration to deliver features designed for colleges, universities and government agencies.
It's not that configuration is easy; it's a setup step that will likely have to be handled by deep technical experts during an initial deployment. But at least you won't have to worry about tweaking and testing code every time the application gets an upgrade. When you're using custom code, there's always a chance it will have to be redeveloped when changes are made to an underlying application.
There are cases when custom development can be a big help, particularly when you need functionality that the vendor just doesn't offer. That's why Salesforce.com, for one, offers the Force.com development platform while NetSuite provides SuiteBuilder customization tools and a SuiteFlow workflow engine. Consider both configuration and customization options when choosing a cloud app, but customize only when there's a clear return on the ongoing investment required.