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11/5/2004
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New ASP Model Lets User Customize Apps

A deeper form of customization emerges, integrating the online service provider with the legacy systems within the customer's own environment.

Application service providers, or software vendors that supply their applications as a subscription service users log on to online, have always had a drawback. They supply a single version of a one-size-fits-all application. The customization that customers may do consists of little more than cosmetic changes, such as changing the labels on the user presentation tabs.

But a deeper form of customization is emerging, offering hope of integrating the online service provider with the legacy systems and unique resources of the customer's own environment. It's possible to drop in a sophisticated interface between the online application and the user. That interface can be given the smarts to go outside the vendor's standard application and tap local resources at the customer's site.

It's called a rich client, not for what it costs, but for the richness of the Windowslike visual display. Rich clients are based in the browser window, which is normally constricted space--no drag-and-drop functionality, no ability to drill down into data or resize windows. The rich client changes all that by using dynamic HTML, the Macromedia Flash Player, Java, or other means to expand the capabilities of the browser window. The rich-client interface adds the ability to talk back and forth with a server rather than merely pinging a Web server for the next HTML page.

Salesforce.com Inc. offers its highest-level, enterprise-class customers the option of buying a toolkit from a third-party supplier, Dream Factory Software Inc., which gives them the option of customizing their online applications.

Here's an example how a company can customize a Salesforce hosted app. Using a local application created with the Dream Factory toolkit, a sales representative, with a single click of the mouse, could pull information out of an enterprise database and add the data to the Salesforce user presentation. The sales rep could see not only how much a customer owes and how much money the client has spent, but also exactly what products were purchased in the last order.

To do that requires consulting the customer's inventory database, which it keeps protected behind its firewall. The online Salesforce application can't access it, but a rich client can add a "check inventory" icon to the Salesforce presentation. When the user clicks on it, that click establishes a connection with a small application on a local server that checks the inventory database and returns results.

The "check inventory" icon is an addition to the Salesforce user presentation, taking advantage of HTML's ability to embed one HTML page in another. The icon resides in what's technically known as an iFrame, or a window for a second HTML page to appear in the first. By activating a link in that window, the Salesforce user can momentarily escape the limits of the Salesforce application, tap into a local resource, then present the results alongside the Salesforce information already available.

The degree of customization allowed falls short of being able to inject lines of Java code into an SAP or PeopleSoft Inc. application, but it allows the user to integrate legacy systems, get data from a database, or commit data to databases from the running Salesforce application--things you previously couldn't do with an ASP, Dream Factory president Bill Appleton says.

At the same time, the advantage of hosted applications remains the same. They're developed and maintained by the vendor, not the user. As the vendor upgrades them, the customer automatically has access to the upgrades without installing software or migrating applications within the enterprise. Customizations done in this fashion for one version of Salesforce applications will work with the next upgrade because the user interface works independently from the host application and can be modified without changing the core system.

Return to main story, Benioff's Big Bet

For more, see:

  • Customer Relationship: More Than A Product
  • SugarCRM Offers Online Service
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