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More evidence that the nature of applications development is changing has come with the announcement of the latest version of NetSuite's SaaS (Software as a Service) offerings, which take some significant steps along the road to bridging the gap between business users and applications development.

It also marks a point where mid-range businesses can get access to the tools and services that will allow them to compete more directly with major global enterprises.

And this means not only users of the service, but also the partner community of software vendors and systems integrators looking to build SaaS-based applications and services.

NetSuite 2007, a name which marks a new nomenclature the company hopes will serve it out into the future, is being aimed at combining increased performance and functionality with greater ease of use.

"Powerful systems are not usually easy to use," said NetSuite VP of international products, Craig Sullivan. "And that has not really mattered too much before now. Powerful systems were used by large enterprises that could afford the trained specialists needed to run them, but now the range of possible users is growing."

That growth is coming from the inevitable penetration of higher performance, more complex, and more functionally rich applications into the mid-range business market as technology prices fall. This trend is being accelerated by the growth of SaaS as a service delivery vehicle.

As such businesses - both end users of the services and the service vendors - are unlikely to have the skilled resources needed, in sufficient quantity if at all, development of tools that bring greater ease of use become more important. This is particularly the case in areas such as rapidly building new applications or services that the business users require.

According to Sullivan, the aim with NetSuite 2007 has been to create a service-building tool set that is a close analogy of the typical desktop applications currently in everyday use. "It will be very familiar to most users of any desktop application, such as Microsoft Word. Anyone who's used a browser can work it," he said.

This should give developers working in the partner community much greater flexibility and productivity, particularly with a SaaS system like NetSuite where the bulk of the work is in configuring and tailoring the core services to the needs of a specific customer.

It does also, however, create the possibility that tech-savvy business managers will be able to build, or at least adapt, services themselves. By the same token, of course, it also means that business-savvy developers can open up new opportunities for themselves by combining those skills with the greater productivity available.

Some of the tools incorporated in NetSuite 2007 are purely productivity-oriented, according to Sullivan. One such is the inclusion of a CSV import tool. This allows formatted listing files to be imported automatically.

"This is one of those jobs that many businesses face - for example, importing a newly acquired contact list into the sales department's database," he said. "But it can be a long and tedious process that takes up developer time. By automating it, developers can be freed up to do more productive work."

Many of the tools are in similar vein, such as a new tax management module that gives a framework for building appropriate tax management tools into a user's implementation just about anywhere in the world. This can exploit a new, comprehensive set up system that guides developers through the relevant stages of service building to ensure that all the correct steps are taken.

There is also a new graphical layout tool for business forms that uses a familiar drag and drop approach on top of form templates. Users can then move and resize the components, add logos etc, delete unneeded elements, and reformat fonts and content as required.

A new Matrix Item Assistant has been included that should speed the development of the tools needed for product management. "For example, if a clothing business is adding a new range of shirts they will come in a range of styles, sizes, and colours. That information needs to be built into a matrix to manage the product combinations and individual SKUs," Sullivan says.

The company is also taking a tilt at Microsoft and its efforts in the Business Intelligence (BI) arena with the introduction of Suite Analytics. This is a development of the existing basic dashboard technology used in NetSuite that now provides business managers with BI-oriented information in real time. This moves the company towards providing what Sullivan calls "global CRM", though in practice it is far more closely linked to NetSuite's history in transaction management. This will provide the tools needed by small and medium-sized businesses if they are to trade effectively in international markets.

"It can provide real-time roll up of all relevant information for business managements," Sullivan said. "And is able to operate across multiple languages, multiple currencies, and multiple tax environments. It is particularly good at currency management as it accommodates exchange rate fluctuations over time."

This means it can give real-time, like-for-like comparisons of business and financial performance across different markets. ®

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