Test-driving desktop software as a service

Peter Bruzzese ponders a world in which software as a service becomes the norm and installing software is passé

The Microsoft home page caught my eye with an invitation to "Test Drive" Windows Vista. Now, I don't need to test it out; I've been working with it for the past two years. But I was curious about the quality of this online offer with a browser interface.

After being rejected because I was using Firefox, due to its lack of ActiveX controls, I switched over to Internet Explorer 7 and connected right up. The graphics were not quite as smooth as I like, but with no effort on my part, I had a system in front of me that not only includes Vista SP1 but also a bunch of other tools like the Application Compatibility Toolkit and the entire Office 2007 Suite pre-installed. I worked with the Test Drive version of Word and it was just as responsive as my installed version. If there was a delay, it was slight and didn't affect my work performance.

This experience had me thinking: What other software offers an online test-drive before you purchase -- and just how advanced can the technology be? I liked the Microsoft test-drive, but I didn't like that it was browser-specific and required ActiveX. The experience also led me to wonder, When can we finally eliminate the need to install software altogether and just work through our browsers?

My search led to Intuit QuickBooks, which you can test-drive through a browser as well, using technology from a company called Runaware; the underlying services are from Citrix. I kicked off the test-drive, and it checked my browser, which was Firefox (no trouble); looked for Java, the universal language (no problem); and tested network speed (no trouble) -- we were off.

I can honestly say that I was very impressed with the quality of the interface. Granted, the Microsoft interface I test-drove was for Vista with Office 2007, and accessing a full OS and suite via the Web is less complex than accessing a single application. But the point is I had full functionality as though I was working with QuickBooks installed on my machine directly. It was fast and crisp.

The test-drive experiences didn't accomplish the ultimate goal of inducing me to purchase the software. It did, however, lead me to think a bit deeper about where we are in terms of SaaS (software as a service) development. Through hosted applications, I should have less stuff running on my personal system these days and more of my apps available anywhere at anytime. I don't want to own the app, fix the app, or upgrade the app; I simply want to use the app! And how many companies around the world could benefit from solutions where all they really need is a fast connection to the Internet and a compatible browser? How much money could be saved between hardware and support and so forth?

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