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Make the Web, Cloud Do Your Work So You Don’t Have To


Photo by Balleyne

While perusing around the web yesterday (after sifting through my email post-vacation), I came across this Ars Technica article discussing the new Firefox upgrade timeline. It actually follows a similar upgrade timeline that WordPress adopted after WordPress 2.0 was released.

The new policy outlines a 3-4 month window for new major releases with limited security updates for releases outside of the current stable release.

The Ars article goes on to describe the angst that has come out of the corporate community as they have been lulled into a process of having to test new releases of software to ensure compatibility with their internal firewall’d webapps that have, in no small part, been created for a specific browser – usually Internet Explorer 6 or 7.

Browser Stagnation Caused IT Stagnation

A few years ago, the stagnation of browser support was broken as Firefox and Opera started a race to implement CSS3 features that were not necessarily status quo, as a result of Internet Explorer, and were not even blessed as part of an official spec. The browser makers just started doing it.

Notably, some of these browser-specific “add-ons” to CSS dealt with things that had been desired but only usable with browser hacks: rounded corners, opacity, etc.

Apple came on the scene, particularly with iOS (then iPhone OS), and put a tremendous amount of development efforts into WebKit. WebKit is a browser framework like Gecko, the framework that Firefox and the old Netscape are built on was. Apple’s take on WebKit was Safari. Google followed suit with Chrome awhile later, also built on WebKit.

What we end up with is a browser war with higher stakes than the famed Internet Explorer-Netscape war of the 1990s. We also see a lot more innovation and one-upmanship… something that can only be good for consumers.

The Ars article describes a tenuous balance for enterprise customers. That balance is the need to support internal firewalled applications while giving users access to the public web. The money quote from the article sums up the balance nicely:

The Web is a shared medium. It’s used for both private and public sites, and the ability to access these sites is dependent on Web browsers understanding a common set of protocols and file formats (many corporate intranet sites may not in fact be accessible from the Internet itself, but the browsers used to access these sites generally have to live in both worlds).

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If developers could be sure that only Internet Explorer 9, Firefox 5, and Chrome 13 were in use on the Internet, they would be able to make substantial savings in development and testing, and would have a wealth of additional features available to use.

But they can’t assume that, and so they have to avoid desirable features or waste time working around their absence. And a major reason—not the only reason, but a substantial one—is corporate users. Corporate users who can’t update their browsers because of some persnickety internal application they have to use, but who then go and use that same browser on the public Internet. By unleashing these obsolete browsers on the world at large, these corporate users make the Web worse for everyone. Web developers have to target the lowest common denominator, and the corporations are making that lowest common denominator that much lower.

As someone who has worked on the web for more than 10 years and who has also worked in Enterprise, I agree.

I remember when I worked for the Navy and the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) was in deployment. It was a massive headache for everyone involved because the assumption with that contract was that systems could uniformly be tied together and standardized. By my understanding, they finally achieved that last year, but not until after being years late and hundreds of millions over budget.

I don’t know the final deployment as my contract with the Navy ended back in 2004. I know that proprietary systems were in place that were designed to a function and not to a standard.  When standards were introduced as necessary requisites for any system in that eco-system, the implications were huge.

This is the world we live in today where, as the Ars article points out, browsers that must live in a world of compatibility and still access the public web drag the rest of us down.

Outsource Your Shit and Focus on Your Core Business

But Ars already makes that point. I’m not making it again except to highlight the validity of their thoughts. My point is more intrinsic to startups, small businesses and entrepreneurs and I make it delicately as it has, in some ways, countered some of my thoughts in the past.

Why should you worry about building applications to a function when you can build them to a standard? Or better yet, why should you build from the ground up to a function when you can use external, cloud-based services built to a standard.

Take Microsoft’s just-announced Microsoft Office 365. Now, I don’t know anything about this product so don’t take my commentary as an endorsement in any way. We use Google Apps at WP Engine (another good example of exactly what I’m saying here).

In Office 365, you have a common piece of line-of-business software (Microsoft Office) available for a subscription and hosted in the cloud. This eliminates IT Administrators requirement for testing on the internal network. It’s on the web! Everyone has the web! And it doesn’t need (and in fact, cannot work) with non-standard browsers. And you don’t even need Microsoft’s browser to use it.

Suddenly, IT Administrators along with Microsoft have saved the Enterprise tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in man-hours testing and re-resting for OS compatibility. And suddenly, IT Administrators along with Microsoft have taken the chains off users to have freedom of choice in their browsers (which, by the way, is more than a pie in the sky idealistic thing… it’s also a cost-saving efficiency thing). And also suddenly, Microsoft has released the web to be able to thrive and not be retarded by corporate requirements.

This kind of thing makes perfect sense. Why re-invent the wheel? Why put resources into something you don’t have to? Why not let a third party, like Microsoft or Google, worry about the compatibility issues in line-of-business software.

After all, your company isn’t in the core business of building these applications. You are in the line of business of doing something else… building a product, a social network, a mobile app, a hosting company, etc. Your software should not define the cost of doing business. Your people and your product should.

The Three Constituents of Government Engagement

The other day, I had a chance to speak with Congressional staffers on Capitol Hill about blogging and social media. It was an interesting opportunity that few people get, but I was honored to be given a chance to have that opportunity. It was also interesting to me that, the Democrats had a different set of interests, it seemed, than the Republicans. The Republicans definitely seemed to be interested about the concept of Twitter and microcontent and finding ways to communicate on behalf of their bosses (the members of Congress). The Democrats, on the flip side, seemed oriented to ethical communications, almost shying away from talking to bloggers for journalistic integrity and ensuring that all activity online feel in lines with the rules.

Regardless of the various conversations going on inside those halls and the various interests conveyed, they all have the same three constituencies to cater to. In fact, any government entity has to concern themselves with these same three constituencies. I had this conversation, in fact, last night at TechCocktail DC, where an entrepreneur was building a product that would directly serve government agencies. As a new entrepreneur with a new product in active development, he wanted my thoughts on how to bring the software to market. I advised him to think about these three different constituencies because, for a technology or movement to succeed in government, all three of these groups must have their needs addressed.

The Citizens (or the Users)

In the United States, rightfully, the federal government exists because of the American people. Every dollar spent on a program, project, contract or other investment is money that is gained through taxes or borrowing, which is in turn, paid for by taxes. Therefore, the American people have a direct vested interest in every line item in an agency budget, including product investment. This is why it is so important that the ideas that are brought to the table and utilized are done with careful consideration of ROI.

If a government agency decides to use a product, it is in the American people’s best interest that the idea is well vetted and has a high chance of success. Unlike other areas of the marketplace where experimentation can be tried, it is a much more difficult sell if large amounts of money are at play with an unknown chance of success.

The Elected Government (or the Board)

The second constituency, and the political side of the whole conversation, is the elected government. These are the Obamas, the Cabinet members, the department heads and other political appointees that set the policy and direction for their fiefdoms. They are the ones only concerned with the 50,000 foot view, that look at the puzzle as a whole and strategize about direction.

The elected government, at the end of the day, are likely to make the big decisions. Those decisions, might not be decisions about the adoption of a software product or technology, unless those products are major direction-changing products. However, they offer a significant stake in formulating the thinking surrounding adoption. In order to meet the need of this group, the entrepreneur has to think about the mission of the agency, and how strategically, their product or service is going to affect the strategic thinking at the top.

The Established Government (or the Employees)

The third important constituency in the ecosystem of government selling, is the established government. While the tenured feds who have been carreerists for 20 or 30 years, may not look at the larger strategy decisions, they are intimately involved in the day to day. They are the foot soldiers that, regardless of who is in office, continue to do what they do. They have their kingdoms that have been built up over years, making decisions not based on the high-level strategy, but based on executive orders, court rulings and the practical ebb and flow of day to day work.

The established government cares little about the “why’s” (many are just there to do their job and go home, which is not to say that they don’t care – they just have a different level of buy-in), and instead are focused on the “how”. They might argue, “It’s great that we want to adopt Linux as the operating system of choice in our agency to save money for the taxpayers, but we have significant interoperability concerns with other agencies.”

In order to bring a product to market, an entrepreneur must understand the practical challenges that are faced in an operational environment. This cannot be done with a single meeting in a conference room for an hour or two, and it can’t be done by simply reading blogs or newspapers. An entrepreneur should take as much time to understand that landscape intimately, and ensuring that any solution brought forth is going to address challenges as best as possible.

This group is also going to be the one that is most likely to derail a “pitch”.

Summary

Whenever you want to bring a product to market, the government (like business), is going to look at what you do from the perspective of their own understanding and perceptions. Taking the time to listen first, and understand the challenges of the three constituencies, is going to go a long way in extending your product reach to this audience.

It would be presumptuous to walk into Google and suggest better software for a perceived internal problem without first understanding if your solution extends Google’s mission to organize the worlds information. If it doesn’t help Google gain market share with their own products, then it’s not likely something that the Google brass care to entertain. If it doesn’t help Google, in some way, make money, then it probably doesn’t have wings. A sensible entrepreneur would look at these concepts before walking in the door. Why aren’t we doing the same thing with the government?