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Open...and Shut Businesses everywhere have embraced open source as a way to increase innovation and drive down software acquisition costs. Unfortunately, open source doesn't solve an even bigger problem companies have: making their software/systems talk to each other. Whether you're Chevron or Sam's Truck Stop, at some point you're going to want two disparate systems to talk to each other.

And you're almost certainly going to fail.

This isn't a matter of greedy vendors seeking ways to lock customers into their systems. It's more a case of vendors focusing on solving an immediate customer problem (like managing customer databases or help-desk ticketing) and not thinking about customer problems in a holistic way. Or, rather, not being able to afford to build out or buy, Oracle style, an entire suite of enterprise software.

I've experienced this at startups (Alfresco and Strobe) and larger companies (Novell, Mitsui and Canonical). You buy one system (maybe customer relationship management) and it's great until you buy the second system, and have to start figuring out how to cobble them together. It's a pain and definitely doesn't live up to the IT-free ideal the cloud purports to deliver.

All of which makes the new Networked Help Desk API so interesting. It enables disparate systems to create a common communications stream, focused on delivering excellent customer service.

The idea is that today, customer service often requires interaction of multiple teams and companies. That might be different departments in a company, or increasingly, it might be multiple, different vendors or partners working together. (Classic consumer example: you book a flight, rental car and hotel on Expedia, but when you need service, it might require going directly to the hotel or airline.)

The NetworkHelpDesk.org view is that an open API can make it easier to deliver awesome customer service, even if it's across team or company boundaries. And the API should enable vendors to deliver awesome service no matter what software their customers use, whether for CRM, customer service, help desk, forum, community, IT systems and so on.

As an example, if your support team uses Zendesk and your development team uses Jira for bug tracking, how do you ensure that you can easily share information between those apps when you need to escalate the reporting of a customer issue that turns out to be a bug that requires a fix?

The NetworkedHelpdesk API would enable you to establish a protocol for sharing information between these apps, so that developers can see the relevant customer info and the customer support team has visibility into what engineering is doing. When the issue is fixed, it can flow all the way back to the customer. There is no need to rely on emails or one-offs to track this, leaving you with less likelihood of issues falling through the cracks.

Networkhelpdesk.org is not an open-source project, though it is an open standard, one whose success depends upon attracting an open, active ecosystem of customer service-related partners. So far, so good: the project launched with 18 partners, including Zendesk, Atlassian, Twilio, New Relic, and others, and has been adding more, like SugarCRM, at a steady clip.

The project isn't for everyone. Given its emphasis on customer service, it's centered on vendors who build ticketing systems, bug trackers, and CRM software. And it's not for legacy, fat-client software vendors: this is a cloud kids club. It's not, however, an open source-only club. Only a few of the vendors involved would classify themselves as "open-source companies."

While the Network Hep Desk API makes integration of IT systems simpler, don't fire your IT department just yet. It's designed, as ZDNet points out, to provide "a uniform way to connect applications and organizations to each other to achieve 'seamless collaboration'." That "seamless collaboration", however, is going to require a talented IT team to figure out how to drive the linked systems to greater efficiencies and business productivity.

It will be interesting to see if any big vendors with relevant cloud applications will join in. Oracle and its CRM on Demand? Salesforce? Others? Today it's unclear, but there's little reason they shouldn't participate. There's little-to-no value to the vendor in stranding its customers on an island of productivity, inhibiting them from connecting to other vendors' systems. In fact, there's a lot of value in providing just such a connected experience that Networkedhelpdesk.org provides.

While still a nascent API, perhaps at some point being Networkhelpdesk API-compatible will be a key selling point in customer-service software. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register.

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