Microsoft’s vision of cloud computing is called, and being marketed as Software + Services. The original, more broadly accepted term, as you are likely aware, is Software as a Service. What’s the difference, if any? Should you care? Or is Microsoft just trying to re-invent or re-define the genre for our purposes – marketing, awareness or otherwise? Not only is this a key question in general, but it is almost more important for us as educators, administrators, students and those of us in the IT vendor world that serve those constituents. My goal of this blog post is to start opening the door on understanding – I can’t ask or expect much more given how the definition of this space is changing weekly, if not daily.
Software as a Service (SaaS) is defined quite well on Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Software_as_a_Service. Note the keys here are “hosted” and “no local installation” which has clear and distinct benefits from a desktop management perspective – not only from a versioning and update perspective, but from a cross-platform support perspective as well (assuming web standards are utilized/optimized). You could go on and argue that costs are more manageable and predictable – a pay as you consume concept – and that much of the overhead of internal IT services, including helpdesk and support, can be alleviated. The risks, as also stated in the article, relate primarily to sustainability and redundancy, but also data protection and general security.
To be sure, Microsoft understands and embraces the concept of SaaS, as evidenced by our foray into all of our “Live” branded products – both for the consumer (http://get.live.com/) as well as for business (http://www.microsoft.com/softwareplusservices/). Where we augment the basic definition is around those areas above that are known or hypothesized weaknesses of SaaS. It may or may not surprise you that S+S is actually defined quite well on Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%2BS – but to summarize in my own words: Software + Services takes the concept and power of cloud computing (Services) and magnifies its effect with the smart use of client side computing (Software).
Let’s take some examples:
1. Unified Communications: in the SaaS world, this could imply email, web conferencing, instant messaging and perhaps IP telephony all of which can be done via browser-based applications and consistent connectivity. When you add S+S to the UC workload, however, you start to add programs like Outlook, Office Communicator, Live Meeting and Windows Mobile, all of which are medium-to-heavy client applications that add (in my opinion) significant value to my daily routine, including the ability to work offline, work quickly with local data; operate, sort, filter, view and process email, media and documents on my mobile phone when I have a poor (or no) cell signal. Schools and campuses are approaching or already have 100% wireless and cellular coverage, which negates at least some of the basic advantages of the “Software” side of this equation, so then we need to look one step further at both the richness and flexibility of client-side software, for example the ability to manage calls, conferences and messages in an integrated fashion between my email and communicator client.
2. Classroom or Administrative Productivity: this category includes those applications that we think of as core – word processing, spreadsheets, presentation and perhaps note taking and graphics/desktop publishing/drawing. Open Office, Google and others have free or inexpensive options available in the SaaS world. Depending on needs, such options may be sufficient, especially if the ad-funded model of software development and support works for you. OneNote is a great example of very-education-relevant software that takes advantage of web interaction (synchronizing notebooks across the web) that has no match as a cloud-based service.
3. Companion Applications: where the Microsoft S+S message really starts to gel is the area of what I will call companion applications – all of which are free, btw. Some of these you may have heard of, some you may not have, but they start to connect the dots between our new and traditional worlds, specifically around Productivity Applications, but largely applicable to all areas.
Our cloud computing will continue to evolve – no doubt – as we push the envelope on S+S, both with traditional, for-fee software, as well as new-model free ad-funded or low cost companion or utility computing applications. Either way, you can trust that our experience in both enterprise computing as well as end-user application innovation will yield some pretty cool, pretty useful applications for education. Stay tuned to the PDC in late October 2008 for some exciting new announcements in this area!
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