The computer-industrial complex has been on a mad race of hardware, software and services to shape us “users” in their own image. With the drop in prices for hardware, it seems that a “network” is in everone’s reach. Microsoft is even shipping a “home server” – instant network in a box. What is missing in this hardware and software gold rush is that few of us, myself included, are capable of properly managing a network and hardening that network against attack. And there are a lot of malevolent forces out there ready to attack. As a result, we find ourselves relying increasingly on the gray wizards of networking, often calling them in when it is too late.
At the same time, we have been increasing our focus on collaboration, whether it be with other lawyers or consultants, with our clients, or with the people who support us. We find ourselves needing to “share” more of what we do, but to do such sharing in a secure and limited environment. We also find ourselves in need of accessing our “practice management” information from anywhere on a wide range of devices as more and more of the “free minutes” of our life become scheduled. And when that fragile network put together with spit, string, and band-aides goes down, when that connection is lost, we are lost and helpless.
And so, in looking at these costs, I want to throw out my server and go completely virtual. I am not sure the technology is “all there”, but a lot of the pieces are already there. These pieces exist in cloud offerings, whether they be MozyPro backup, GoogleApps, or an Advologix or HoudiniEsq. The key to making this switch will depend not on the quality of the software, though that will be a factor, but on the “openness” of the systems, the presence of an easy-to-use API, the ability to support third-party apps and plugins, device agnosticism (the ability to access data from ANY device).
It will also depend on security, privacy, and off-line access or full system backup. The power of desktop and client applications has been in their diversity and adaptability. There is an App for everything. With the ubiquity of the Windows platform, niche markets have developed for law firms, and within the law firm space, small, mid-size and large practices. These systems, by and large, have have been well-suited to the needs of attorneys. However, many of the software developers have not kept pace with changes in technology and usage. Rather, they have staked out their turf, barricaded the walls, and tried to become “all-in-one” solutions. In so doing, they have failed to follow their user base to “Google Calendars”, to “NetEvents”, to web workspaces, or to the iPhone, Blackberry Storm, or Android. They have failed to build “lite” web apps that can be accessed on underpowered Netbooks working on broadband or wireless. They have neglected the “lifestyle” choice of many users to choose a Mac as their platform of choice. They have made it too difficult and expensive to open a “client portal” into the data on the system.
The Software-as-a-Service (SAAS) model tosses the whole paradigm on its head.
FIRST and foremost, it eliminates the upfront cost. Have laptop and a web connection, and you are off to the races. In fact, while at the races, you can do your work. Maybe your horse will and you can retire.
SECOND, the SAAS model changes the whole pricing paradigm. You pay based on usage, volume and space, or some combination. The hardware and software are blended into the service. If you need to expand, you get an additional license. If you have to contract, you revoke that license. If you need extra storage, you pay for it when you need it.
THIRD, the SAAS model is a service. It entitles you to ongoing support and updates in its very structure. You no longer have to time your upgrades for your budget. And, you don’t have to budget for the transition costs in the upgrade. These items are automatic and provided as part of the service.
FOURTH, additional features are commoditized as “plugins”. Some plugins are public products that hook into other services. Others can be custom-built to order by certified (or uncertified) professionals. Or, in a number of cases you can build them. In evaluating a SAAS service, look to see if there is an community of application developers with apps to hook into your core system. The more apps the better. Also, look to see whether the program itself is customizable and configurable.
FIFTH, look for an exit strategy. This can be a “local client” that runs the data, or a full system export. The latter is more important. If you ever have to migrate to another system, you need access to “ALL” your data. Most SAAS models will have an exit strategy, a way for the user to take ALL the data local into a “non-proprietary format”. This is essential for cloud-based services where the terms of services require that you OWN all the data. An element of ownership is the ability to take the data with you.