The software industry has changed materially since the introduction of cloud computing at the turn of the century in ways that we might too easily forget. Fundamentally, for all its promise, software was once an impediment to business and that began to change after Y2K. You need only recall the great difficulty the business world went through to enable systems to capture four-digit years at the turn of the century. The changeover imperiled more than one large corporation and made many skeptical of big software projects.
Nearly 20 years ago when you bought software, it was far less flexible than today. I once knew a CRM company that had three products for various stages of the company lifecycle and none of the products was interchangeable. A small company with visions of becoming large had to make a Hobson’s choice. It could buy a lower capacity product because that it could afford with an inevitable upgrade later. Or it could buy more software than needed and hope to into it. The upgrade almost always involved ripping and replacing software, converting data, and retraining users.
Today, because software is available by the seat-month, it’s no trouble to start small and grow organically even adding functionality as the need arises, a big difference that saves time and effort as well as costs.
Salesforce revealed The latest example of this enhanced scalability today. First announced at Dreamforce, the new Salesforce Essentials is a scalable set of sales and service solutions aimed at the SMB market. But it’s not a stripped-down version or a unique solution that you’ll someday have to throw away when your needs change. The Essentials solutions are built on the Salesforce Lightning Platform just like the rest of the Salesforce offering. So as needs change, users can simply add functionality and here’s also no need to convert data.
Designed for high usability with key features like Einstein AI built in, Essentials is both a complete and an expandable one. With Einstein users can get insights from their data in the same way as users of the rest of the Salesforce suite. The AppExchange, with its thousands of platform native applications, is also accessible making it possible to fine tune even a small instance of Essentials.
This approach is a good bet for two kinds of businesses, small businesses and boutiques, each has different software needs that essentials can help with. True small businesses may need few functions and record keeping is a big deal. Giving employees a way to understand the sales team’s relationship with the customer is critical to enabling the support group to do its job professionally and efficiently.
Many boutique businesses may have small headcount but they still have sophisticated business processes involving many millions of dollars’ worth of activity. For example, independent financial advisors might only need a few seats, but they still have sophisticated processes to administer and they sometimes need integration with a variety of applications from other providers in the industry. They may also wish to augment their Salesforce instances with applications from the Small Business Hub, part of the AppExchange to fully support their customers. Salesforce Essentials gives them a path for doing all of this without costing a fortune or spending many months knitting systems together. Finally, Trailhead, the Salesforce’s interactive learning environment helps guide users through setup and first use.
My two bits
Today’s Salesforce announcement is certainly interesting from a product perspective. But it’s also a clear demonstration that over time, software technology has become more automated, less costly, and more attuned to business. I haven’t seen any economic analyses, but it seems logical that the maturation of software over the last two decades plays some role in our global ability to innovate and bring new businesses to market in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost of the older paradigm. It takes less capital to spin up a business today than ever before and software efficiencies are a major cause.
Of course, many businesses will fail for a variety of reasons; that happens all the time. But the cost and complexity of technology is no longer a gating factor in business development and that’s a profound improvement.
Spreadsheets suffered a body blow when Salesforce announced new platform functionality last week. Soon all spreadsheets will be good for is financial analysis. This sounds funny because the spreadsheet has for several decades been the unofficial IT prototyping tool. Actually, it was the end user prototyping tool, the default thing they used to capture data when IT was famously too busy maintaining the legacy systems they got from a spaghetti factory. But with the introduction of Lightning Components, Lightning App Builder, and AppExchange for Components, it’s now easier to build your prototype app with these tools than it is to build a spreadsheet.
Salesforce glommed onto lightning terminology as a way to convey the idea of fast development and because it sounds so much better than blitz. The idea in total reminds me of object oriented programming from 30 years ago but with much less emphasis on tedious coding and libraries. Salesforce has brought to market tools that can take a back seat to your creativity and rather than obsessing about how to do some technical trick, the developer, or increasingly the end user, can think about the business need. It’s as fundamental as an artist mixing a color without giving it a lot of conscious thought. That’s what’s happening here with components. Let us unpack.
Ok, so the really cool thing to me is that components will become another category in the AppExchange. They can be built by anyone and if they can be built they can be bought and sold. Of course you can spend a week building one yourself but having the functionality available on the AppExchange for pennies (ok, whole dollars) will make everyone think twice when making build vs. buy decisions.
Components come together in the Lightning App Builder a place (I believe they refer to it as a canvas in keeping with my art analogy) where a developer goes to assemble (I think they say compose) the business app. I suppose you could think of the canvas as a blank spreadsheet if that helps.
But the difference between a spreadsheet and a functioning app is huge. It goes without saying that unlike a spreadsheet, a Lightning app has a real database behind it. And as usual with Salesforce, apps built on the platform inherit all of the other Salesforce capabilities like workflow, Chatter, and security schema and everything else.
A few years ago you could look at the mountain of legacy code and wonder how it could ever be rewritten for handheld devices or replaced to take advantage of all the new capabilities coming on stream. Those capabilities are substantial because, more than the transaction-oriented applications that are rapidly being replaced, they focus on various aspects of process.
Thus the answer to the how question above has two parts. First, we aren’t going to replace those transaction systems, we will supersede them with process support that goes wider and deeper, made possible by pre-built components and subsystems. Second, we will do this because the market demands it. No one is waving a flag to that effect but I don’t think you can be in business in a social, mobile, big data world any more and not know that if you can’t leverage those things you will need to find a new job.
Finally, and also in answer to the how question above, all of this is now possible because we have the ability to generate apps replacing man-centuries of work in hand coding. With this as the fuel of business innovation, I am excited to contemplate where it takes us.