The Applications Glut and the Glueware Solution

It's time to be honest about the application glut that prevents users from getting a real ROI from their software and keeps vendors from growing sales. The truth is, most companies have too much, not too little, applications software.

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As befitting a holiday season defined by excessive eating and scarfing antacids by the handful, it's time to be honest about the application glut that prevents users from getting a real ROI from their software and keeps vendors from delivering continued sales growth.

The truth is, most companies have too much, not too little, applications software. Luckily for the vendors, most companies don't get enough use, and usefulness, out of the software they have. Unluckily for the users, many vendors' solution to the lack of usefulness is to sell more applications, the bigger the better. Maybe there's a better way.

This isn't just a matter of shelfware, though the problem of unused features plagues many large technology acquisitions. The real issue behind the applications glut is untapped potential, and it's the quest to unlock that potential that keeps users buying more and more applications.

Many companies, in a desperate attempt to better leverage customers or supply chains or partnerships, do so by investing in new CRM or SCM or PRM applications, each with its own data model, middleware, workflow, and analytics. The ironic result of getting more software is that they end up being able to do less: There is no single view of the customer, no single source for product or partner information, no synergy between applications. When it comes to big applications, more is not necessarily better.

So it's not surprising that customers are starting to demand that they get the functionality they want while leveraging the glut of applications they already have. To ensure continued irony, this, of course, tends to mean that users have to first buy more software. At least, for the most part, this new software -- glueware is probably the best way to characterize it -- is small, easy to implement, and relatively cost-effective.

Much of the glueware out in the market today is familiar: Enterprise applications integration technology is the archetype of leverage-what-you've-already-got glueware. The problem with EAI is that it looks and acts like a lot of other enterprise software products: Add enough consultants and your EAI project will swell up until it too is part of the applications glut.

Integration As Value-Add Happily for the user community, there are ways to get more from the applications glut without turning the quest into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The EAI folks had the basic idea right: the trick is to integrate applications -- and their data -- and let integration be the value-add.

This is very much the thinking behind the enterprise portals that are popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain. Using a portal to integrate applications functionality at the desktop is a pretty good way to get more bang for your applications buck. And it's relatively easy to use and inexpensive to implement.

Another great way to do this is to use a Web services/application aggregation technology. A good example comes from iSpheres, an Oakland, Calif. start-up that has pioneered what it calls the meta-application.

These applications, using iSpheres' framework technology, are actually built from services and components of other applications, both internal and external. The leveragability of an iSpheres meta-application can be huge, particularly for users with custom solutions requirements that need a lot of disparate real-time data.

A third glueware option was demo'ed for me recently, and it looks to be exceedingly promising. The Real-time Relevance Server, a new offering from start-up LumaPath, of Maynard, Mass., allows applications users to link up different applications through a context-sensing technology that "knows" what is currently displayed on the user's screen.

That knowledge is used by the Relevance Server to find references from other enterprise applications and services to the key data elements on the screen. Those cross references can then be displayed, updated, or sent to another user. It works well, at least in demo-land, and doesn't require any changes to existing applications or their user interfaces.

The thread that links these three glueware solutions together is that they make the applications glut make sense. As the glut continues, integration becomes the new killer app, and leverage is its value-add. In an applications world in which more is better, sometimes the best way to innovate is to realize that less can really be more.

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