My most recent post highlighted the continued growth in capabilities for mobile computing and relevance of these capabilities to the soft goods industry. As I suggested in my closing remarks, a discussion of trends in the mobile area sets the scene for a follow-on discussion of “apps”, cloud computing and software as a service (SaaS). Those readers that are quite technology savvy will understand why this is so and most will make the link between mobile computing and the importance of software applications. After all, who doesn’t need the occasional “Angry Birds” fix? Pop culture aside, what are some of the key trends in regard to apps? What is cloud computing and why is it an important technology strategy for our industry? What does this trend have to do with SaaS and how is this model being applied for soft goods? What are some of the benefits of using a software service rather than a locally installed solution? Let’s take a look at these questions:
The World of “Apps”
Before launching into a discussion of “apps” it’s helpful to understand what this term means. An app is essentially a piece of software that enables one to execute a task or group of tasks. As I was investigating trends in apps, I discovered an announcement from early 2011 by the American Dialect Society that declares the term “app” to be the “Word of the Year” for 2010. This title was granted in recognition of the pervasive use of “app” in the context of “mobile software applications”. Clearly apps are now established as a form of software that is recognizable among consumers. Concurrently, app development is an area of focus for technology providers that wish to enable their customers in a mobile environment that is expanding in terms of capabilities and formats. I’ve not been surprised to read about the introduction of app stores launched in response to a rise in mobile technologies beyond Apple’s product base (e.g. Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Droid, RIM). I’m struck by a related notion arising from tech media that the app strategy is beginning to replace conventional software. In fact, Rob Enderle (Top Technology Trends for 2012, TechNewsWorld) points to the predicted death of packaged software products in favor of applications or purchase of software solutions through an app store. As tablet like features become more prevalent for the broader mobile and desktop computing environment, the growth in application software across platforms seems to fit as a trend. It will be interesting to see how the app trend will impact software solutions for the textile and apparel industries. In my previous post, I mentioned a few apps of relevance to our industry (Pantone, Centric). I will continue to keep my eyes open for these solutions and report back on my findings.
Cloud Computing and Apps
In the meantime, what do apps have to do with cloud computing? Though mobile technologies are advancing in terms of their processing capabilities, these systems are further enabled by cloud strategies that provide the backbone for processing of complex information in the app world. Given the fact that wireless internet has become ubiquitous in a great many regions, users of mobile systems can launch an app wherever they are and send directions or information to remote servers that process and return results in real time. Megan Geuss (Tech Trends You’ll See in 2012, PCWorld) points to the use of cloud processing to enable voice request systems such as Siri on the iPhone 4S. For readers not familiar with Siri, this solution allows the use of one’s voice to execute a task. According to Geuss, the voice request is sent to Apple’s data center where it’s processed and subsequent results are returned. Siri is said to act as a bit of a personal assistant that can carry out actions such as placing calls and scheduling meetings. Sounds like a handy tool for a busy professional? Maybe some of our readers are using this tool? Clouds also support the ability to use software independent of the operating system. For example, Microsoft’s new OnLive Desktop is an application that provides the user with a cloud based PC desktop for reviewing, creating and editing Microsoft Office documents on the iPad (e.g. Word and PowerPoint). The app is coming soon to other platforms as well and sounds like a great solution for employees on the road.
The discussion of cloud computing brings us to the topic of software as a service. SaaS is a cloud based model for accessing software that is being hosted on a central server in lieu of a software package that has been installed locally (e.g. on your PC). The service may be provided to companies or individuals via a license or subscription arrangement and in many cases, the user accesses the software through their web browser. Salesforce.com, a company that readers might be familiar with in regard to strategies for customer relationship management, is an example of a SaaS provider. Salesforce has a selection of tools for managing areas such as accounts, contacts, opportunities, leads and quotes. The company also offers mobile access to data via cloud computing and additionally, the ability to create customized applications for a variety of platforms and mobile devices. According to the corporate website, these applications could be developed and used for activities like enabling collaboration between employees and for sales management processes including reporting and searching.
Adobe is an example of a company that more recently entered the software as a service market with the introduction of the Adobe Creative Cloud - a subscription option for the company’s popular Creative Suite (Version 5.5). Adobe products are used extensively within the product development environment for textiles and apparel and one of the primary advantages of the SaaS approach is quick access to upgrades and improvements in the software. This is a bonus for companies that benefit from cutting edge capabilities and that have multiple users for which regular upgrades or multi-seat licensing becomes a significant investment under the more traditional purchase model. On the cost front, another benefit of the Creative Cloud subscription is the low cost of entry. Where purchasing a single license or upgrade can be a costly venture for an individual, the subscription is available for a much lower monthly fee. True, monthly fees add up. However, for freelance designers and home users, this could be an appealing way to get started with a solution that might be out of reach otherwise. I should note that Adobe’s introduction of the Creative Cloud has been somewhat controversial among established customers due to the pairing of the announcement with new software upgrade restrictions for packaged products. Adobe appears to be working through this controversy by revising the upgrade restrictions and by attempting to communicate the benefits of the cloud subscription.
How about apparel/textile industry specific cloud and Saas technologies? I’m beginning to hear more about these examples and am providing a few for readers to look into. Some of these have been around for a time, while other solutions have been more recently announced:
- In early January, TradeStone announced bamboo rose™, which the company describes as an “invitation only” marketplace for retailers and a “cloud and smartphone app offering”. The solution is said to enable buyers and merchants to connect and shop offerings from participating suppliers. Buyers can send out wish lists, browse products, order samples, plan and organize buying trips, and capture and communicate images. The company emphasizes that one of the benefits of the system is the ability to send information from bamboo rose to the TradeStone system to initiate RFQ’s, tech packs or orders.
- Lawson is supporting operations in the cloud for their Fashion PLM solution which is available through a SaaS subscription or via a more traditional licensing option. The company states that available cloud based modules include “Line Optimizer, Storyboard, Fabric & Trim, Product Manager, Workflow and Source”. Easier system management and system stability are described as some of the benefits of the SaaS approach for Lawson’s technology.
- Simparel offers an enterprise solution for supply chain management that covers a range of management capabilities related to products, sales orders, production orders, logistics, inventory, warehouse and fulfillment. Customers can select from a traditional license model or the Simparel Subscription Service Solution.
- Plataine a company known for marker optimization solutions (e.g. Nester), offers on-demand web-based marker making via MarkerMaker.com. Users of the service are able to generate markers using Plataine’s optimization technology. The primary benefit is results based purchasing and access to optimization technology without hardware and software investment.
- Optitex also offers an on-line marker making service via the company’s Web Services site. In addition, the site has an on-line data converter that can be used to convert CAD files from popular native formats (e.g. Gerber, Microdynamics, Lectra, Investronica) to OptiTex format while maintaining important pattern piece and model (style) data. Customers can pay for the service by the number of tasks executed.
Note that the preceding is not a comprehensive list of SaaS offerings for the soft goods industry. Rather the services mentioned are intended to provide a sampling of the kinds of applications and functionality technology vendors are attempting to address through the cloud model. I will continue to look for examples and keep my eyes and ears open in regard to how companies are using clouds, SaaS and apps to enhance their business efforts.
Next time…I’ll be taking a look at Social Networks, Crowdsourcing and Gamification in regard to technologies that are changing the way we will communicate and innovate in the workplace.