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Can it clean up with AJAX?

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AJAX (Asynchronous Javascript And XML) maybe just one more hot technology that is the `happening thing’ right at the moment, but some implementations are starting to appear that look as though the claims made for it might have some merit. Its exploitation is, for example, a major component in the latest release of NetSuite, Version 11.

NetSuite, for the uninitiated, is an online, service provision business suite aimed at providing the business management needs of the SMB sector. The company claims it has been estimated as a $7bn market.

The company launched this new version at the Oakland A’s baseball ground just before the team – as NetSuite CEO Zach Nelson predicted - roundly thrashed the New York Yankees. Putting on a show like this suggests that the company may now be more interested in playing some real hardball in the marketplace, a suspicion born out by some serious mickey-taking of potential rivals all hinged around a Suite(Star) Wars theme….geddit?

Actually, it worked; but first, the reason why the use of AJAX is potentially important. Online delivery of a closely coupled, integrated suite of business management services is OK so far as it has gone for NetSuite, but no individual company has exactly the same needs as any other. So tailoring the suite to suit specific needs is now an increasingly important capability.

This is what AJAX offers. In Version 11 of the suite it is being used to provide an environment in which individual users can modify their instances on the service to provide the information they need. This may sound like no big deal within a suite that is running on a user’s system, but for an online system using web services technologies to deliver the functionality to remote browsers, it is useful.

It has allowed the company to include a feature called SuiteScript – a tool with which the base suite can be adapted to fit the specific business needs of a user. Drop down menus are not only now available because of the use of AJAX but can be modified to provide the reporting characteristics required, and it can also be used to allow data entry into the browser where appropriate. According to Nelson, this creates an environment in which users can start to customise their business processes pretty much on the fly.

AJAX is also being used to condense the user interface to the system by providing the tools needed to collapse reports or other functionality behind on-screen pop-ups. This gives what Nelson called an “above the fold” user interface that can be expanded into more detail as required.

NetSuite has itself used this functionality to develop a couple of industry-specific `editions’ for the distribution business sector and the service-provision sector. These incorporate accepted best practice business processes, largely proposed by the users, so that companies in those market sectors can, in theory at least, get a fast start.

SuiteScript is written in JavaScript, so a wide range of developers should be able to exploit it straightaway. It also provides a user interface capable of providing business users with sufficient weaponry to modify and adapt the suite’s applications themselves, on-screen.

And the mickey taking of rivals? Well, the fundamentals of it all were that online delivery of a well integrated and adaptable suite is what the SMB market now needs for business management, and the competition – in the shape of Microsoft, SAP and salesforce.com – could not deliver.

SAP represented the big, single-sourced integrated environment installed on the users’ platform. Nelson observed that these were big through acquisitions and that they had, in practice, serious difficulties make the integrations work. In practice, he suggested, they generate more revenue for the big integration consultancies than they earn themselves. It is not without merit to observe, of course, that SAP’s great rival, Oracle, is a major investor in NetSuite.

Microsoft was credited with at least knowing it was going in the wrong direction and making plans, with Microsoft Dynamics, to change. But it would take years: and Nelson suggested it would be longer than the seven years Microsoft is predicting.

As for salesforce.com Nelson suggested it is providing an online service using web services as the integration medium between loosely-coupled applications, which in his view is tantamount to using pixie dust. His view is that businesses need tightly coupled, transaction-based applications on which to run the business, and that the loosely coupled approach will not deliver. He did acknowledge that mashups would grow in capability to meet some of these needs, but still doubted they would be a match. ®

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