Henry Ford once said: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” Then, in 1923 Alfred Sloan of General Motors came along and changed the rules of the game by offering a tremendous variety in colors and models. But, GM didn’t do it one customer at a time. GM redesigned its manufacturing line with the required flexibility to produce a multitude of models and colors without compromising the inherent economies of scale of Ford’s assembly line innovation—a practice that has evolved into the concepts of flexible manufacturing and mass customization.
The primary enabler of mass customization is the elimination of setup costs. Setup costs occur from the labor, time and tooling it takes to switch a production line from one product to the other. High setup costs encourage long production runs to cover the expense incurred in switching over. By reducing them, production runs can be shortened. If they are eliminated, production runs can be reduced to a single unit. That is you can make the variations A, A1, A2, … An of a product (think GM models) for the same costs as making n units of A (think Ford Model Ts). If you apply this idea to enterprise software, taking each customer installation as a “unit” and the associated, customer-specific implementation, configuration, customization, and ongoing maintenance time and effort as the setup costs, then the roadblocks to mass customization in the SaaS model become clear: eliminate, automate and generally squeeze the cost out of your ability to handle unique customer requirements.
This business need entails an architectural requirement that is as essential to an SaaS vendor’s success as system security and the scalable, single-instance, multi-tenant architectural imperative. It requires automated deployment that consumes minimal resources, extensive, easy-to-use, self-service configuration and complete interoperability built on open, standards-based APIs. It cannot be off-loaded to VARS or customers. This shifts the costs downstream and undermines competitive advantage, because from the customer’s perspective, total cost of ownership is not reduced relative to installed software.