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Playing Devil’s Advocate with an Innovative Vendor’s “Techies”

Written By: Predrag Jakovljevic
Published On: August 3 2009

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Introduction

The series of articles where Technology Evaluation Centers (TEC) asks vendors to provide their input on a number of market trends has received much attention and reaction from readers and vendors. Infor and IFS were the first to respond (see Two Stalwart Vendors Discuss Market Trends), followed by Progress Software (see Open Platform Provider Answers Questions about the State of the Market), xTuple (see A Semi-open Source Vendor Discusses Market Trends), and The Sage Group (see A Traditional "Local Touch" Leader Espouses a More Global Vision).

As detailed in some of TEC's previous articles, enterprise applications have evolved from mainframes via client/server to service-oriented architecture (SOA) and Web service paradigms (see Architecture Evolution: From Mainframes to Service-oriented Architecture).

According to some of the latest developments, the user interface (UI) has improved and evolved on the server side (i.e., "under the hood"), especially lately. But in any enterprise application, the aim should be to reduce interaction with the system and make it as "lights out" as possible (i.e., reduce human intervention to the maximum degree possible). The only thing users should use the system for is studying the data and making the right decisions (if we don't count the heads-down folks that focus only on capturing transactions).

Then again, the interface should be adapted to the analysis being done. Poor interfaces and the inability to search for the right information are time wasters in business applications. Generally speaking, the best way to users' hearts and minds is via an intuitive UI that helps with the "zero training" and "self-evident applications" themes. The need for agility in business and the ability to continually make the changes in processes to accommodate the demands of the market means that the user ought to have intuitive tools that require minimal system training and re-training.

In evolutionary terms, from character-based "green screens," the next step was a Microsoft Windows-like "fat/rich" graphical user interface (GUI) during the client/server era. Lately, many vendors have been betting on Microsoft Office's familiarity. For instance, Microsoft Dynamics CRM's UI emulates working within Microsoft Outlook, and Duet emulates working in SAP from Microsoft Word, Excel, or Outlook, while Alloy (previously code-named Atlantic project) will emulate working in SAP from IBM Lotus Notes (see Application Giants in Duel—and Duet—for Users' Hearts, Minds… and Wallets). Moreover, Lawson Smart Client leverages a number of common Microsoft Office products (most notably Microsoft Office Groove).

However, the other school of thought is that Microsoft Office is not necessarily the only familiar "inspiration." With the help of interactive tools like Asynchronous Java and XML (AJAX) and JavaScript that provide "richness" to Web applications, Salesforce.com and other software as a service (SaaS) players use the Web browser familiarity to build their UIs. In other words, if a UI resembles Amazon's, Google's, or eBay's Web pages, who needs any formal software training?

Other similar products such as IQMS Smart Page and Smart Search, IFS Enterprise Explorer (IEE, part of the ongoing Project Aurora venture), Microsoft Dynamics Client for Office (DCO), Lawson Smart Office and Enterprise Search, Epicor Productivity Pyramid and Enterprise Search, and Infor MyDay revolve around themes such as role-based portals, contextual analytics, key performance indicators (KPIs), alerts, dashboards, etc.

Below is a list of TEC's recent blog entries that touch on the topic of "vendors trying to win users' minds and hearts."

IFS Appeals to Generation "Y"

Sweden-based IFS has surprised us pleasantly by going a step further to provide the familiarity of Apple's iPhone and Google search within the IFS Applications suite.

Who is IFS?

The following information was taken from the recent press release entitled IFS and Saab Sign Strategic Partnership Agreement.

IFS is a public company (OMX STO: IFS) founded in 1983 that develops, supplies, and implements IFS Applications™, a fully integrated, component-based extended ERP suite built on SOA technology.

The company has more than 2,000 customers in 54 countries and focuses on seven main industries: aerospace and defense, utilities and telecom, manufacturing, process industries, automotive, retail and wholesale distribution, and construction contracting and service management. IFS has 2,700 employees and net revenue in 2008 was SKr 2.5 billion [$330 million USD].

IFS straightened its balance sheet and profit and loss (P&L) statements well before the current economic onslaught, which in turn has produced good financial results (against the odds) and fewer layoffs than its competitors.

A few years ago, under the new chief executive officer (CEO) Alastair Sorbie, IFS organized its priorities via a number of wise initiatives. The first priority was to pick its research and development (R&D) battles in several asset-intensive and project-based industries. The idea was to address a number of recent industry trends with new functionality. One example would be to accommodate the new project-focused ways of working or the new business paradigm, with fewer being manufactured by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) and more being produced via subcontracting and outsourcing—all that while delivering products more frequently.

The capital contract management functionality was another priority for IFS because many organizations develop a product and service according to their contract obligations. Moreover, each contract is managed as a project if it has its own P&L statement. Another particular example is the in-life service and maintenance of an asset; assets are being managed more by the OEM (i.e., the user rents the asset as a service) and less by the actual asset user.

Furthermore, any product endeavors had to be in line with revenues. In some cases, major customers were involved in R&D undertakings and both parties would benefit. For IFS's part, the vendor would end up with an intellectual property for a fraction of R&D costs (if it developed it on its own), while the major customer would have the first-to-market competitive advantage in terms of IFS's functionality.

IFS also decided to selectively rely on partners (resellers) to sell and implement IFS Applications in certain markets. This would include some major customers such as Saab. Partnering with Saab would mean that

Saab's support division, besides using IFS Applications for its internal processes, will also offer its customers various business models that include a broad spectrum of services involving IT and information management. As a result, Saab, as a support integrator in collaboration with IFS, can implement solutions at customer sites, provide the service as an application service provider, or manage the assignment with in the framework of its own internal systems. (See IFS and Saab Sign Strategic Partnership Agreement.)

Finally, being ahead of the SOA curve (due to the way its suite has long been structured as components) has enabled IFS to focus on the user experience (UX) innovation. IFS believes that small- and medium-sized companies can beat the larger competitors (like IFS does against SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft Dynamics) by reacting faster and adopting new and innovative ways of working by learning from iPhone's and Facebook's generation "Y." Usability leads to increased user productivity via intuitive, zero-training, and familiar interfaces such as enterprise search features like Google's Web-based search, but confined within the enterprise data and extended enterprise. IFS was one of the first vendors with the native enterprise application search capabilities, and the other vendors have lately been following suit, including the recently unveiled SAP BusinessObjects Explorer.

For more information on IFS's recent moves and philosophy, see the following TEC articles:

Instead of giving a ringing endorsement or criticism on IFS's moves and directions, we decided to pose a number of provocative questions to the vendor. The answers were provided by Rick Veague, chief technical officer (CTO) at IFS North America, and Dan Matthews, CTO at IFS AB.

TEC's Questions and IFS's Answers

Q1. Will IEE be the default UI metaphor from the IFS Applications 7.5 release onwards, or will users be able to opt for the old one?

IFS: At present, it will be the default metaphor for the UI in IFS Applications 7.5.

Q2. Does the iPhone-like UI aim at certain user groups per se (casual, power, etc.), or it is for everyone to use? I assume it doesn't entail any additional licensing [as Duet does]?

IFS: IEE is for all users and at no extra licensing cost.

Q3. How do you position IEE against various "intelligent desktop" and office business applications (OBA) initiatives, not to mention Duet, Alloy, Productivity Pyramid, and so on: complementary, overlapping, or in-between? In other words, what is IFS's approach and view towards winning users via a UI? Different users will want and need different UIs. Is there a single winning UI strategy in your mind?

IFS: Users can configure how the UI looks to suit their needs. Some will still want a tree structure; others will want symbols or a combination; some will want a simple desktop, [and] others more complex. We have been delighted at the response from analysts, press, and users on the look and feel of IEE/Aurora—we believe this will drive upgrades to 7.5 and win over new clients.

Q4. How are the iPhone UI, Enterprise Search, and the "consider the sticky" capability (with a "Post-it" note metaphor) related within IEE?

IFS: The "sticky" is to enable data that is not part of the normal system database, to be kept, as a sticky note would be on a physical desktop—and it can be searched along with the data in the database.

Q5. What UI technology was used for IEE?

IFS: Web-deployed Microsoft .NET Framework. More specifically, it was developed with 100 percent managed C# code, delivered over the Web through Microsoft ClickOnce technology, the .NET standard for Web deployment of rich/smart Microsoft Windows clients.

Q6. One concern is that many traditional enterprise resource planning (ERP) users are not exactly part of Facebook's generation "Y." For example, some are still happy with the "green screen" and "boxy" old Microsoft Windows GUI. I'm not sure how many of them are even familiar with Apple's iPod/iPhone to jump on that.

IFS: From surveys conducted by IFS on our customer base and other ERP user systems, we have determined that one of the top priorities for clients is ease-of-use and that is what we are providing with IEE. The screens can be customized by users to show what they want to see—so the "two field" user in the stores just gets his/her two-input fields/icons.

Q7. What are your thoughts on the following statement: What IEE might really look like to some is just a graphical version of a menu system, while at the business logic level, it is the same old stuff?

IFS: IEE is a new user experience. While it is quite a drastic change to what the user sees and the capabilities of the UI, the underlying business logic has not changed at all. You can compare IEE/Aurora to a new operating system (OS). Installing it on your computer does not mean any changes to the underlying hardware, but how you, the user, interact with and experience the computer can change quite a lot.

Q8. What would you say to the observation (criticism) that new UIs are not a matter of what it is possible for the vendor to do at low cost (e.g., substituting iPhone-like icons for Windows-like icons), but [rather] thinking through what users need and want in a new way and then delivering it?

IFS: Absolutely. With IEE we are going through every single aspect of a UI (navigation, search/query, workflow, etc.) and revising or completely re-engineering it to achieve higher usability. The new color scheme and icons are a fraction of the investment, although one aspect that should not be ignored is that the look of the UI is as important as the materials in the interior of a car.

Q9. Some might comment that IEE isn't very "shocking," just the next turn of the UI crank [i.e., the next revolution of the wheel]. They also might comment that this is some marketing person's pladding around a paper-thin shell of change. What is your view on this matter?

IFS: We certainly don't want IEE/Aurora to be shocking but we do believe it will be the biggest productivity-increasing change to IFS Applications.

Q10. Our view is that individuals live in a "space" where they do most of their work. For example, managers "live" in Outlook or Lotus Notes, accountants "live" in Excel, and mobile technicians "live" in a cell phone (e.g., Palm Trio) metaphor, where the iPhone similarity of IEE can come in handy. For casual users, it is the Web browser, but they usually work within a department and the department's function is where they spend most of their time. Your thoughts?

IFS: Absolutely. We must have different styles of UIs for different needs. This is exactly what IFS does. For example, IFS Business Analytics, for an accountant, is an OBA. It enables IFS Applications data and reporting functionalities available directly through Excel. We also have IFS Mobile Client for traveling technicians but IEE should be regarded as the main UI for enterprise users.

Q11. IEE is not generally available (GA) yet, right?

IFS: IEE is not GA, correct. It is entering the customer beta test phase, where it will be used in production at select IFS customer sites around the world. In addition to the usual quality verification, we expect our early-adopter customers to explore different ways of using new IEE features. We will make use [of] this knowledge to fine-tune IEE before GA.

To be more precise (and up to date), IEE is slated for GA in July 2009, and as a result of an extended and successful customer beta period IFS' first customers are already going live on IEE. IFS' Web page for IEE that includes customer quotes, customer interview videos and other pertinent information can be found here (see http://www2.ifsworld.com/ee/index.htm).

Q12. What are your views and approaches towards some vendors' (e.g. Oracle, Salesforce.com, NetSuite, Sage, etc.) opinions that the Web metaphor can prevail over the Microsoft Desktop metaphor?

IFS (Rick Veague): We think there are two very different questions being posed in this topic; the first question: is a highly configurable, web-based, modern UI what people want and expect? and the second question: what technology delivers that? IFS agrees that users are comfortable with web-based applications—our recent industry study confirms that. It is for precisely this reason IEE follows modern Web 2.0 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WEB_2.0) concepts and why we expect the rate of adoption among our user base to be very, very high.

IEE is a zero-install, run-from-a-browser UI that includes rich client features and is highly configurable. It also means you get your same personalized view of IFS Applications from any workstation or device you choose to use. The question, I suppose, is whether one technology is better than another in delivering this. The answer, I suppose, depends on your priorities and how one measures things. But if you end up with the same result at the same cost point, does it really matter? In our view, IFS is taking advantage of the best technology for the task—but as technology changes over time, and it will, IFS will change as well.

We think the Web wins in the long run, although there will always be niche applications that are better served by a more "traditionally Microsoft Windows UI." Depending on the application, some vendors will maintain both, or perhaps more likely use both, as necessary. But our original point is that we are converging in the middle—Web apps that offer a rich UX, like Windows, and Windows apps that look and behave like Web apps—in other words, the user is getting the best of both worlds.

(Dan Matthews) Just a quick comment to reinforce and support what Rick has already said. In terms of the interaction model, or "how the software works," the Web model will certainly prevail. With the use of hyperlinks and forward/back navigation, a UI with more "design" and "graphic" content is what people expect. However, in terms of the technology used to deliver this, we need something richer than hypertext markup language (HTML), which is why we are seeing new technologies like Microsoft Silverlight, Adobe Air, Java FX, etc.

These technologies all combine a Web-style UI and Web deployment with a richer programming model and interactivity that goes beyond even traditional windows applications. As Rick said, IFS Enterprise Explorer uses this technology to deliver a Web-deployed rich experience that works similar to how users work on the Web. We are using Microsoft technologies to build this.

 
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