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WebtoCloud Apps
One could easily say that Web Applications, even of an Enterprise scale, have been available from the earliest days of Web development from the mid 1990's. Amazon has not just a book selling business but a broader gadgets and appliance business on the Web. FTD has a flower sale business stretching worldwide. And eBay has made auctions available to millions of users for at least ten years.

All of these are examples of large enterprise scale Web applications. And these days one could cite thousands of other big businesses and retailers that are selling on the Web. But from the list above, only one, eBay, is in the business of providing millions of small (and some rather big) businesses with online auction, payment and other necessary services for keeping their operations going.

And what was envisioned early as big online B2B marketplaces in commodities and other trading services either did not survive or just did not materialize. One can think of Cloud Computing as the third or even fifth iteration of Web apps that provide the right combination of features and services to business users both large and small. See this and our first article on Cloud Computing for some of the critical dimensions and services provided by today's Cloud Computing vendors.

The Emergence Cloud Applications

Our 2nd look at Cloud Computing documents what Web development languages and tools are at the head of the curve in delivering Web 2/Cloud applications. But a second point emerged in this review. Cloud Computing is about delivering apps that can be used anywhere and at anytime. In order to do this effectively, Web 2.0 apps are now moving rapidly toward RAIA-Rich Anywhere Interface Applications. RAIA means delivering three critical capabilities:
1) The same rich, GUI on any platform - mobile, embedded, Web or PC;
2) Apps that can run online or offline plus sync up between the modes;
3) Apps that are like Java, write once run anywhere - not complete rewrites as current PC desktops apps have to be when moving to the Web or mobile devices.
So think of RAIA as the second, immediately following wave in Cloud Computing. It will be sweeping into sweeping into IT operations everywhere on the heels of new Cloud Apps. RAIA is supported by such technologies as Google Gears, Flash-based Flex and Air, Java and JavaFX, etc.

What this next review will do is look at some very real Cloud Applications and how they reflect the move to:

a)Anytime and Anywhere operations;
b)with rich GUI interfaces;
c)with added collaboration and integration capabilities dependent on the apps online operations that take apps beyond the current client-server based local area networks and intranets;
d)quick delivery with prebuilt apps which still can be customized for specific organization needs.


These type of capabilities are further enhanced by the SaaS-Software as a Service approach where vendors like Salesforce.comm, NetSuite, and many others provide 24/7, always on, huge online storage with back-up and recovery services, and the latest program updates as part of their total online package.

Cloud Application Roster

SugarCRM
Technologies: PHP, Ext JavaScript Framework

I have deliberately chosen SugarCRM instead of one of the pioneers of Cloud Computing, Salesforce.com who delivered online CRM-Customer Relationship Management first among developers - well before Oracle or SAP. Salesforce also refined many of the online technologies and services offered in SaaS and Cloud Computing. Its Apex scripting language remains an innovation that other SaaS vendors have yet to match for breadth of features.

However, the story on SugarCRM is equally if not more compelling because this software starts from an Open Source base. There are 3 version of the software - Community Edition which is free and Open Source. The Professional Edition costs $480/user/year and delivers more than a dozen additional features including Sales Forecasting Product Catalog, plus Team or Workflow Management. Or the Enterprise Edition (which is delivered on the users site)which is $449/user/year and adds offline operations, advanced reporting, and a self-service portal for customers.

It is easy to demo SugarCRM, just go here on their website and click on the Live Demo buttons on the middle of the page. You will see that the system loads quickly and provides fairly good response time on a DSL connection. But what is even more impressive is the depth of features:
- Contact Management
- Account Tracking
- Email station with links to Microsoft Outlook in Pro edition
- Personal Calendar
- Activities, Campaigns, and Leads Integration
- Project Management and Integration
- Dashboard and Portal for quick status views
And these features are from the free Community edition. Pro and Enterprise add at least a dozen additional capabilities. And SugarCRM is delivered in a collaborative context where users have admin determined roles and access to added features and data.

As noted Cloud Computing often provides unique collaboration capabilities. SugarCRM is no exception. Its Project Management is one key tool for coordinating collaboration among users. But SugarCRM also provides Activity Management that brings together all the workflows and stakeholders involved in a customer-sales (or client-server) and allows many users, scattered anywhere in the world to communicate and add to activities or indicate progress on projects task. Yes the email interface allows basic communication among all parties; but it is the shared projects and activities that mark SugarCRM

The Community edition is perfect for non-profits or community organizations organizing events or managing their various contribution campaigns. However, the user is responsible for setting up the site and administering it - in contrast with the pay as you go Pro Edition where SugarCRM provide the startup and some ongoing support as well as the backup and data recovery support.

As you can see from the screenshot above or if you try the demos, SugarCRM certainly delivers a very easy to use GUI interface for its operations. The screenshot shows:
Tabs across the top of the screen instead of menus from Home to Cases. These tabs are remarkably fast and contain many additional panels and widgets. Along the left side are accordion menu panels that can be collapsed or expanded. Note the blue popup hint or tooltip that pops if you hover your mouse over an object or widget for more than 1 second(these settings can be modified by users). Finally note the colored pie charts and line plots which use data I supplied during the course of the demo. Again, the response time was less than 3 seconds - not bad, but one would expect to rise when there are hundreds of observations.

Switching among the Tabs will show calendar, tree, and grid widgets among others. So SugarCRM certainly shows what can be done in the Cloud using rich "desktop" GUI widgets and features. As we shall see in some of the other Cloud apps below, even computationally intensive graphics processing is remarkably responsive. And I am not using the latest of hardware. My test machine is Dual Core 1.7GHz processors with 1GB of memory and 45GB free on a 110GB hard disk.

So if you buy the online (or in SugarCRM sales-speak, "On Demand"), users will get not only data storage with backup and recovery but also an update cycle that is performed by SugarCRM. And with SugarCRM Pro's support of mobile phones and apps, data can be fed to client anywhere in the world which is becoming more important as markets and supplier go global. Our next Cloud Computing App will show this anywhere and graphics processing prowess in even.

Splash-up
Technologies: Adobe Flash+JavaScripting

Splash-up has been chosen as our second Cloud App because it demonstrates how strong the GUI features of Clouds Apps can be. Splash-up is just 1 of 5 Online Photo-editors featured here. But what sets Splash-up apart is that it provides not just a good portion of the look and feel of Photoshop but also provides many pro photo editing features.

Consider the screenshot above. Splash-up features a toolbox that is simplified but mimics Photoshop remarkably closely. Ditto for the Info dialog. The layers panel is quite simplified in comparison to the rococo panel that Layers has become - especially in the CS versions of Photoshop. But to my surprise and delight, Splash-up's layers are remarkably effective. Finally the color picker is different from Photoshop's; but I prefer Splash-ups version - simple yet effective.

I really expected the response time to be very sluggish with Splash-up. But to my surprise even the layer and masked operations worked with snappy speed. Mind you I kept my image sizes below 1000 x 1000 pixels - and that certainly helps. Loading a 2Mpixel certainly took time - so I immediately cropped/resized these images under the 1000x1000 target size.

Splash-up offers a number of options for saving an image including re-downloading the image back to your PC, or as seen in the screenshot to a number of popular online services. So there are lots of storage and backup opportunities including self provision. the one Cloud Computing feature that Splash-up is missing is direct collaboration capabilities. But if the end product is to be shared then the above safe options allow for some integration with colleagues and customers. Our next Cloud App is an online=>online app builder

Sprout Builder
Technologies: jQuery+other JavaScript Frameworks, Adobe Flash + Flash Player:

Now the last Cloud App to be featured again is an example of a Web development tool on the Web itself. Sprout Builder is a Flash Widget builder of very top polish coming right out of the gate. Here is a Flash based widget that I conjured up in 20-30 minutes having no experience with the software whatsoever:


As you can see from the screenshot, Sprout Builder, like Splash-up, has the look and feel of a Visual Design tool with toolbox, property bar, drag and drop canvas and tabs for major transitions in the workflow. Even the right mouse click works in Windows (eat your hearts out Mac-sters) - and so if you are familiar with Eclipse, Netbeans, Delphi Studio and other IDEs users will become comfortable with the app pretty quickly. Having a number of pre-built templates certainly helps.

If you look under the covers this is a combo AJAX+Flash app and of course it delivers Flash 9 widgets for use on your websites. But the most important feature is the Flash capability. This tool comes very close to a being a RAIA application - the missing piece is the ability to run Sprout Builder offline as well as online. But can you imagine that capability??? Work a little extra at home and then deliver the finished widget the next morning. VERY NICE INDEED. This tool is so nifty, I hope to do a full review of it in the next few weeks.

Summary

The following three Cloud Apps barely skim the surface. One can go to so many social networking sites (MySpace, Mixx, Stumble-on, Twitter, Facebook, etc, etc), Gallery websites (Fotki, Flickr, Phixr, Pixagogo, Kodakgallery, Photoshop.com, etc, etc,etc) and a deluge of online business software are coming this way. Yes, it is reminiscent of the Dot.com boom bubble. And I suspect the winners will be early entrants that constantly innovate both in features and delivery/pricing of their services - the Flickrs of the online world.

However, there is no doubt these tools are delivering not only GUI rich experiences; but also anytime, anywhere and with anyone collaboration. Even more important is the range of user customization features from simple configuration files and templates, through dynamic forms and reporting to active scripting. But the winning advantage may well come from those who adopt the RAIA approach of running offline and online while bringing the same basic feature and codebase to mobile, web, and desktop applications. These write-once-present-anywhere interfaces will rise to the top because users now will now expect to be able to get more and do more with their computing devices regardless if its a PC, mobile phone, portable game consold, PDA, notebook or whatever. And Cloud Computing essentially brings various flavors of programming to all users from their own customized templates and themes to Sprout-like mash-ups through to the heavier lifting of scripted and customized plugins and add-ons. So the Cloud brings not just easy to use and rich GUI or anytime and anywhere collaborative apps; but also apps that can be user customized and configured in ways that classic desktop software like Office and Visual Basic originally supported but now have been effectively abandoned. In sum, Cloud Computing is where the action is at not just in features and convenience but also where developers, developers, developers see the biggest opportunities and are investing in various platforms the most. We plan to do more Cloud Apps; if you have recommendations for Cloud Apps that should be covered please let us know.

Send comments to JBSurveyer 2004-2009