I use a variety of hosted web conferencing products. Hosted means that I don’t install and maintain the software on my computer or corporate server… I access it over the web, relying on the vendor to keep it available and updated. Other terms for this include Software as a Service (SaaS) or cloud computing.
A key debate in whether hosted or site-installed software applications are “better” centers on the issue of updates to the software. If you install a software application on your company’s computers and the vendor releases a new version, your IT team can delay installation until they have tested the new version for compatibility, notified corporate users, created a training or orientation program (if necessary), and decided whether the upgrade is beneficial or detrimental. If you use vendor-hosted software, the decision is out of your hands… One day you log on and find that you are using the new version.
An up-side to hosted software is supposed to be that the vendor has the flexibility to quickly add features and functionality without making customers go through a big release/install process. If the vendor wants to slip in a new bit of functionality or fix a bug, they can just do it (hopefully with due consideration for whether it could mess up existing customers). But this type of incremental update is exceedingly rare.
Most software vendors create versions of their software. Big changes that might cause incompatibility with existing operations get a new integer number. Small bug fixes and incremental additions are tacked on behind the decimal point, as in “Release 7.1.4” The vendor proudly announces each new version’s availability date and the collection of changes included in the release. They save up enhancements until it is reasonable to do a full production release.
Last week my hosted version of Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro 7.5 got an update called Service Pack 1. My ReadyTalk Web Meeting account jumped up to version 6. Nice packaged bundles of feature changes, saved up and introduced as a set.
But at the same time, my omNovia account went through a series of mutations like a Haggunenon facing an oversized dining table (look it up). They added the ability to expand a video image to fit the screen. They extended registration to let one person register multiple guests for an event. They combined some registration and attendance reports. They added the ability to export chat transcripts to Microsoft Word. They fixed a problem causing a slide conversion error. Each was added as a separate programming change. There were no version numbers, no formal release notes… Just a notice on their Product Enhancements web page and RSS feed or a notification that the bug had been fixed.
omNovia is one of the few software companies I know that is willing to just throw in a feature or fix a bug on the fly without saving it up for a packaged release. I have had occasions where I reported a bug or an inconvenience on their support page and received an email hours or days later saying “Try it now.”
Taking the omNovia approach to product development is an exciting form of dynamics in software provisioning for your user community. I can certainly argue the negative side of the debate… “You never know what might change and when. I don’t want to keep retesting the software and retraining my users on a daily basis. I like to have a formal release notes document that summarizes all changes since the last release.”
But the positive debate is strong as well… “I don’t have to wait for the next release cycle to get my bug fixed. I can learn about and try out one new functionality addition at a time, rather than being hit by a big new release that changes many things at once.”
The various approaches to software development and customer implementation fascinate me as a former software product manager and as a current software user. Which side of the argument do you come down on? Write a comment and let me know.