Free Apps: Enterprise Freebies Get Serious

Like it or not, free software is powering the enterprise. Get comfortable with SaaS, Google Gears, Adobe AIR, application virtualization, and free apps from scores of startups and big-name vendors -- or get left behind.

Ivan Schneider, Contributor

March 11, 2009

12 Min Read

Why are corporate-issue PCs so locked down?

Enterprise PCs have to offer stability and security first. Flexibility comes in a distant third. Allowing free rein for users to download free software can upset the delicate balance between core applications and the operating system, resulting in system slowdowns and intermittent crashes.

Google Gears uses your PC as an offline data storage repository for Web apps accessed through your browser.

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The other hurdle is the security threat, because nobody wants to be the one responsible for a data breach stemming from the installation of an unnecessary (or even frivolous) application. It's bad enough dealing with e-mail attachments, phishing scams, browser vulnerabilities and unsafe websites. Installing "free" applications inside the firewall? That's asking for trouble.

Nevertheless, the fear of new and unknown code runs counter to the development of a business culture that embraces innovation, experimentation, and customization, and this fear can have an impact on business strategy.

The ideal solution is an enterprise IT architecture that's stable on the inside and built for customization from the outside. That's part of the promise of technologies including SaaS (software as a service) Web applications, desktop applications built on Adobe AIR, offline data access through Google Gears, and application virtualization.

Each technology takes a different approach to application delivery, and you don't necessarily have to choose among them. But you should know the main approaches, how they work, and how they'll help your enterprise take advantage of more and better free stuff.

SaaS Applications

Improved user interface techniques have combined with fast, (almost) always-on connections to make online services a viable alternative to many PC applications. Depending on how many users you have and which services you require, trading from installed software licenses to online subscriptions can represent a good deal. But it's not all about the money. With SaaS, the IT department wins by not having to get involved with testing, patching , or updating software. Plus, from a user's perspective, switching to an online app increases the frequency of surprise and delight. With SaaS, you can try out improvements as they're released instead of waiting for a new version to be installed. That's the key to SaaS web applications: Functionality for the end user, simplicity for IT, and scalability for the provider.

Microsoft Office Live Workspace simplifies the workflow involved with collaborating on Office documents.

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Just make sure you understand how these online services work lest you make a mistake stemming from expectations set by traditional applications. For instance, suppose you draft a proposal using Google Docs, which you then share with your potential business partners. Your collaborators will not only be able to see your final document, but also every single version auto-saved up to that point.

While that may be a useful feature in some circumstances, there will be instances when you don't want to let outside parties see how the sausages are made. You may be better off drafting your documents in a traditional office suite -- either Microsoft Office or one of these open-source alternatives -- and then uploading your best efforts for your colleagues' consideration.

Project Management Tools

While there's a SaaS offering for just about every task, project management represents an ideal entry point for enterprises experimenting with the free apps. It's general enough to fit many industries, while being relatively simple to understand, at least compared to a CRM or ERP system.

37signals got its start with Basecamp five years ago as an easy-to-use online alternative to the clunky enterprise collaboration servers available at the time. Basecamp, however, is no longer free. The new entry point is a 30-day free trial (particularly useful if you're not sure whether your employer will make payroll next month). That's the hidden price of hosted software: What's free today is a recurring charge on your credit card tomorrow, and the change tends to take effect after you've altered the way you work.

For a free alternative to Basecamp, take a look at Zoho Projects, which offers a free plan for one project and 100MB storage, or ManyMoon, which has a free version with unlimited projects and users, with integration to Google Docs and Google Calendar.

LinkedIn users have access to certified LinkedIn Applications such as Huddle Workspaces or Files for online collaboration, project management, and document sharing. That way, you can have a ready answer for why you're using LinkedIn on company time: "Oh no, I'm not looking for work. We use LinkedIn for collaborating with clients -- and by avoiding expensive server-based collaboration groupware, I'm saving the company money!" This approach will surely earn you a glowing recommendation for your profile. Recruiters notice people with glowing recommendations.

Microsoft Office Live Workspace

It doesn't purport to be a complete project management tool, but Microsoft Office Live Workspace does simplify the workflow involved with collaborating on Office documents. The service provides 5GB of storage space for exchanging documents, notes, spreadsheets, presentations, and lists with your colleagues. You can either upload files through the Web page, or download a plug-in that lets you save documents from Microsoft Office applications directly into your Live Workspace.

Adobe AIR

Adobe AIR applications break free from the limitations of browser-based applications, especially in terms of the user interface. A cross-platform runtime that extends the ubiquitous Flash Player and hooks to the operating system for interface controls and basic file access, Adobe AIR gives developers an easy way to create applications with advanced, Web 2.0 interfaces in a deployment model that doesn't depend on a browser.

Adobe AIR apps such as Tweetdeck can sap available system memory.

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Having a cross-platform runtime isn't exactly a new idea. Sun's platform-independent Java platform allows developers to write Java applets that can be embedded into Web pages or run independently within a Java Virtual Machine available across multiple operating systems.

Other popular frameworks already bridge online and offline resources. Microsoft .NET provides developers with a library of code to create applications and web services that use a runtime compiler for greater security and robustness, while Microsoft Silverlight extends .NET to the Web browser. While it does offer relatively limited capabilities, Adobe AIR differentiates itself from these frameworks by providing a clear path for Web developers to transition Flash-based applications from the browser to the desktop in a reasonably secure and locked-down environment.

According to the AIR security model (described here), an AIR application consists of two separate sandboxes. AIR developers can only access system resources within a protected "application sandbox" that prevents dangerous operations involving dynamic data or code. Dynamic content resides within a "non-application sandbox" with no access to system resources. Another level of assurance comes from Adobe AIR's standard, cross-platform installation process, which has a security and manageability advantage over ordinary PC applications having one-off installation programs.

Twhirl is a Twitter client built on Adobe AIR.

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Adobe AIR, however, is only as safe as the programs that users install. Dodgy applications without verified digitals certificate from reputable developers, are still vulnerable to security exposure. Also, because there's no protection against sloppy programming, AIR applications (especially beta versions) can sap available system memory, hindering operating system performance.

IT departments may want to ensure that only AIR applications from trusted websites (e.g. Adobe Marketplace) can be installed on enterprise PCs, and test them before making them standard issue.

Twitter Clients

TweetDeck and Twhirl are popular clients for monitoring Twitter updates, which can be useful to marketing teams. Just watch your memory – these programs can be RAM hogs.

Time Trackers

Track timesheets, expense reports and invoices with Ora Time and Expense, or use Compuccino, a time-tracking tool with the option to export to Basecamp. For a really simple stopwatch-based solution, go and get your Klok.

Productivity Boosters; Analytic Tools

Block out distractions while you write using Focused, a minimalist word processor. Or, if you welcome distractions, Demandbase Stream taps into your Web traffic data to populate a streaming ticker on your computer showing the names and locations of the companies of visitors to your Web site. Google Analytics Reporting Suite provides further details for users of the free Google Analytics Web traffic monitoring tools.

Google Gears

Like Adobe AIR, Google Gears also requests access to the resources of your PC. But where Adobe AIR was designed to enable full-blown apps that access the Internet, Google Gears only wants to use your PC as an offline data storage repository for Web apps accessed through your browser.

Web sites powered by Google Gears allow you to keep working even when you're offline, and will synchronize your data once you reconnect. While there are security issues with the technology, again it boils down to how much you trust the site on which it's being used.

Google's Productivity Suite

The applications within Google alone make installing Gears worth the effort. While offline with Gears, you can read or write e-mails using the Gmail interface, read the latest articles from Google Reader, and compose Google Docs documents, presentations or spreadsheets.

Google Apps offers two tiers of service: Standard users, in exchange for having contextual ads displayed on the interface, receive free Gmail accounts, Google Calendar, Google Docs and Google Sites. Business users have the option to pay $50 per account per year for largely the same services, with the addition of a 99.9% uptime reliability guarantee, additional storage, administrative control and customer support. Zoho's Productivity Suite

Office productivity suite Zoho also uses Google Gears to enable offline use of its Zoho Mail, Zoho Writer and Zoho Mobile applications. It will be interesting to see whether Zoho's Fortune 500 users, many of whom use the software without the permission of their IT departments, will receive permission to install Google Gears on their work PCs -- or at least continue get away with it.

Zoho Writer is part of the Zoho office productivity suite.

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Zoho (using its Zoho Creator Web application builder) has compiled a list of applications that use Google Gears. Applications worth checking out include Remember the Milk -- a to-do list that that can be updated through Twitter, Paymo for time-tracking, and MindMeister for collaborative online mind-mapping (a brainstorming tool).

Application Virtualization

There's yet another path to operating system stability that combines the small footprint of a Web application with the power of a desktop application.

Application virtualization gives users the experience of using a desktop application even as it's being streamed from a network server. Using Microsoft Application Virtualization, VMware ThinApp, Endeavors Application Jukebox or LANDesk Application Virtualization, enterprise users can run applications -- from legacy line-of-business software to office productivity applications -- without the end user ever having to run an installer on the local system.

It's a zero-impact approach: Once a user exits a virtualized application, it's as if it had never been installed at all -- except for user preferences, the user's own documents and an audit trail. Application virtualization also has the benefit of centralized control, as system administrators can oversee which applications are made available, while also making sure that people are using the latest versions. Why You Should Say 'Yes' To Free Apps

Although a robust infrastructure for application virtualization isn't yet available as a free download, the technology itself enables entry into the wider world of free software. Once your enterprise can establish a computing environment that permits applications to be installed without fear of damaging the operating system or line-of business applications, it's much easier for your IT department to say "yes" to users' requests for software, free and otherwise.

That simple "yes" confers a competitive advantage. Free software powers social media, development trends, and expectations of user experience. Your upstart competitors have no problem pressing "Install" on new technologies despite the potential security risks.

As a result, smaller companies tend to benefit first from the real-time flood of free tools and ideas. As online software becomes safer to install, enterprise IT will benefit from the resulting diffusion of innovation.

Learn more about Web 2.0 at TechWeb’s Web 2.0 Expo, March 31-April 3. Join us. (registration required).

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