It seems a little late in the game for me to be asking a question like “What is SaaS?” But, I’ve always harbored a few embarrassing little secrets on the subject and I think it’s time I came clean.
There is a classic Harvard Business School case study called Marketing Myopia by Theodore Levitt that is familiar to every MBA student since the 60’s–the moral of which is not to define your business too narrowly lest you become obsolete. Well I don’t think software is going away any time soon and neither is service, but what about software-as-a-service? Between the rise of the cloud and the fall of the browser, SaaS seems so passe’.
What is SaaS?
Is SaaS software delivered as a service? As in renting, not owning the software. Or, is SaaS a service layered over software? As in a complete solution, not a tool. SaaS is both.
Software delivered as a service means on-demand. It means eliminating the feed and caring of the software itself through automation. Notice that I say eliminating, not obscuring or outsourcing. Automated deployment. Automated maintenance. The software simply arrives and runs as needed in a fashion that is all but invisible to the customer, so the customer realizes the benefit of the service without incurring the headaches of managing the technology.
Service layered over software means the software solves a problem without creating new problems of its own. Not only is the customer freed from managing the technology, but the customer is freed from understanding the technology. A service doesn’t require the customer to master a bunch of technical mumbo jumbo in order to use it.
One of my embarrassing little SaaS secrets is that I’ve always harbored a fondness for desktop anti-virus and security software. It doesn’t run in a browser. It has a huge client footprint. Yet the best desktop security software I’ve used takes care of itself without any help from me. It updates the virus definitions everyday. It updates the client. It cleans my computer in the background. It maintains a firewall and figures out what applications should get through. And, it keeps intruders from co-opting its own processes. Yes, I have to click OK here and there, maybe turn it off to install OTHER software, but by and large it runs and runs without interruption. I have always viewed it as SaaS. It certainly requires less deployment, maintenance and technical know-how than a lot of enterprise SaaS solutions.
Now along come mobile apps. Yes, you have to click OK once in a while, but this is largely about permission and privacy. The seamless-ness of the process is what counts. The more service I get and the less software I have to understand, the more SaaSy it is.
SaaS is software transformed into service, regardless of the technical architecture.
Whether it comes through a browser, a smart phone, or a tablet does not matter as long as the software remains invisible and the service is valuable. Restricting the definition of SaaS to software applications delivered through a Web browser is marketing myopia. As Internet bandwidth expands and mobile clients evolve, the distinction between client and server will continue to blur. The software flows effortlessly throughout the network. What matters is the service it delivers.
SaaS succeeds when software IS service.