I remember, as a teenager, reading a review of the IBM PC in Personal Computer Magazine (c. 1980). At the time I was the very proud owner of a Sinclair ZX80 and was blown away; not so much by the machine’s specification but more the very idea that an IBM (an IBM!) could now be bought for non-NASA sized money and be plugged into a normal domestic power socket.
This was a paradigm shift in the industry that played out over the next few years and resulted in a large number of computing applications transferring from an organisation’s central mini or mainframe computer to personal computers sitting on users’ desks. “At last”, the cry went out from the business, “we can short-cut the IT department and become masters of our own information needs”.
Fast-forward twenty years and we hear the same cry once more, without irony, at the promise of re-centralising those same applications. As the speed and reliability of internet connections has increased, it has become practical for organisations to access software applications online. But whereas previously an internal IT department would manage a wide range of applications, the internet allows specialist third party companies to offer a specific application to many organisations.
The advantages of this approach are many, but at their root rely on economies of scale married to the benefits of doing one thing well. And as the service is usually provided on a subscription basis, the up-front costs are reduced and the ongoing charges can be serviced from an operating, rather than a capital, budget.
The application areas that have adopted this approach most readily have been CRM and knowledge-sharing. The CRM company Salesforce.com is the poster child of Software as a Service (SaaS), representing a well defined commercial application that was once in-house and is now invariably outsourced. The knowledge-sharing space is less well defined, but nevertheless littered with SaaS solutions, some of which have only been ‘invented’ since the advent of SaaS (e.g. Facebook et al.). Other knowledge sharing applications routinely supplied as online services include LMSs, wikis, and blogs.
Whilst content authoring solutions (especially LCMSs) are available as a service from a number of suppliers, the rich graphical environment of an eLearning authoring tool does not naturally lend itself to this deployment model. However, as processing power and bandwidth become increasingly commoditised it is reasonable to expect an ever greater range of applications to be made available as SaaS offerings.