Technology

When Companies Do the Mash


Corporations from IBM to Google to E*Trade are jumping onboard the trend of mixing and matching software from different sources

Richard Hababou scouts out technology deals for the corporate venture arm of French banking giant Soci?t? G?n?rale. Yet the nine-hour time gap between Hababou's San Francisco office and Soci?t? G?n?rale's Paris headquarters can make communicating about multimillion-dollar transactions a big challenge. For years, Hababou and some 1,000 colleagues have used an online portal where they can collaborate, share documents, and track progress on deals.

As useful as it was, the portal needed a facelift. Hababou wanted to add several features to the deal-tracking application and ditch others. So, in mid-October, he brought in software company ActiveGrid, which added a host of tools, from Yahoo! (YHOO) news feeds to Google (GOOG) Maps to AltaVista's Babel Fish for on-the-fly English-French translation. Best of all, the upgrade took all of three days, compared with the three months it took to build the application at the outset. "It's all the applications I need, but simplified," Hababou says.

That makeover is known in software circles as a mashup, or the combination of disparate software or Web-based applications, often from completely different sources. Mashups aimed at consumers trace their roots at least to early 2005, when Paul Rademacher created HousingMaps.com, a combination of Google Maps with real estate listings from Craigslist (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/25/05, "Mix, Match & Mutate").

Companies Raise Questions

Now, the tools are beginning to take hold with businesses. Companies see enterprise mashups, also known as composite applications, as a faster, cheaper way to create customized applications. Already, companies such as E*Trade (ET), Siemens (SI), JDS Uniphase (JDSU), Pfizer (PFE), GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), and Realogy (H) subsidiary Coldwell Banker Commercial are using enterprise mashups in some capacity.

Yet, mashups are far from a slam dunk among enterprises. For starters, IT executives need to make sure mashups are secure, reliable, and able to be applied on a sufficiently large scale. "It's very difficult for a company like Soci?t? G?n?rale to bring in some new technology and put it into production like that," says Hababou. While he was impressed with ActiveGrid's presentation, Soci?t? G?n?rale has yet to become an ActiveGrid customer. Many companies are similarly testing the waters. Dun & Bradstreet (DNB), for instance, is testing IBM's (IBM) Enterprise Mashup Maker, also known as QEDwiki.

For any company mulling mashups, there's a growing variety of case studies. Caryn Truitt owns Cookies, a small Seattle shop that sells cookie-baking gear. She keeps track of inventory using an accounting program sold by Microsoft (MSFT). Now that Microsoft has woven eBay's (EBAY) auction tools and PayPal payment service into Microsoft Office Accounting 2007, Truitt can upload items for sale onto eBay directly from her accounting software in just a few mouse clicks. Truitt hadn't sold on eBay before, but it looked so easy that she decided to try it. "It was something I had always planned to look into, but being a small-business owner there are always too many things to do," she explains.

Software Vendors' Services

Other software makers also use mashups to build new tools for business customers. Intuit (INTU) integrated certain Google (GOOG) services into its small-business accounting software package, QuickBooks 2007 (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/14/06, "Google, Intuit Pair Up Against a Foe").

Several vendors offer tools to help clients build their own mashups. These include some of the biggest names in software, such as IBM, SAP (SAP), and Salesforce.com (CRM), as well as newer players Nexaweb, JackBe, ActiveGrid, and Above All Software. A handful of companies??ncluding Salesforce.com, SugarCRM, WebEx (WEBX), StrikeIron, and Rearden Commerce??re creating marketplaces where companies can buy various services that are either pre-mashed or can be easily integrated into existing applications.

Having someone else do the heavy lifting can take a lot of time and cost out of developing just the right set of software tools for a business, says ActiveGrid CEO Peter Yared. "We're about five to 10 times faster than previous technology," he says. Shrinking into one month a project that would otherwise take a programmer five months to complete can save in the neighborhood of $50,000, he adds.

When software becomes easier and cheaper to develop, suddenly it's possible to create many more customized applications than before. Some IT departments don't have the time or resources to develop requested applications that can number more than 1,000. "Previously, you had to have a problem that was big enough to warrant a project manager and five or six months to staff it up," says Dion Hinchcliffe, president and chief technology officer of consulting firm Hinchcliffe & Co.

Adding Resources for Sales

For some, the challenge isn't more software, but less??r at least making better use of existing programs. Many companies sell multiple services to the same customer, winding up with multiple representations of that customer in different databases, sometimes with slightly different spellings. That can make it difficult to offer services like integrated billing or get a holistic view of a customer's activities.

Jefferies & Co. (JEF) wanted a common database for its investment banking customers. So it tapped Nexaweb to build business productivity and research applications that mash up customer information from a common database. "Once you have the data standardized, you can slice and dice it the way you want," says Omer Soykan, a senior vice-president at Jefferies.

Enterprise-security vendor PGP Corp. went a similar route to create a master customer records list. Above All helped PGP mash up existing customer records with standardized company information from Dun & Bradstreet. Now, when salespeople add new accounts, the mashed-up application automatically fills the screen with relevant company information culled from Dun & Bradstreet, saving data-entry time. "The effect was that we got cleaner data," says David Burnett, director of informatics at PGP.

Mashups are often used to help sales staff more readily clinch deals. E*Trade wanted to give its sales teams new software features, so it mashed up its homegrown customer relationship management system with software from Salesforce.com. "We really wanted to avail ourselves of some of the nice features that a product like Salesforce.com provides," says E*Trade Chief Information Officer Greg Framke.

Making Companies More Collaborative

Another area where mashups can make a difference is in collaboration among employees from different parts of a business. "Complex collaborative problem solving is one of the last places we haven't automated," says Hinchcliffe. In fact, somewhere between 25% to 50% of employees exchange information with colleagues, customers, and suppliers, and make judgments by drawing on many different forms of information, according to a recent report by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. Industries where more than 50% of employees use complex collaborative problem solving include insurance, securities, and health care.

In many cases, employees won't even realize they're using mashups. Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, and JDS Uniphase have begun to use a Web application from Rearden Commerce to make travel and dining reservations. Rearden Commerce provides a marketplace of corporate services, essentially mashing up many services from different providers in the areas of travel, dining, entertainment, conferencing, and package shipping (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/21/05, "A Man for All Services"). Rearden Commerce is integrated with corporate applications such as Microsoft Outlook and Lotus Notes so that travel and dining reservations automatically appear on an employee's calendar once they're made.

The next frontier for some companies is figuring out how to break products and services down into components that consumers will be able to mash up on their own. "Someone could take a component from E*Trade and mash it up with something from Quicken or Yahoo or Google or anywhere they wanted, to form something that's new and interesting," says Framke, who expects E*Trade to start providing such components to consumers in 2007.

Tools for Consumers and Business

Already, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have made maps available, so companies can create mapping applications, one of the most common mashups for enterprises. In an effort to lure potential buyers, Coldwell Banker Commercial took the property listings on its Web site and mashed them up with demographic data from Claritas and a mapping application from Microsoft.

Companies like Salesforce.com, SugarCRM, and WebEx are opening up their products so that third-party developers can mash in other capabilities. In January, Salesforce.com started AppExchange, an online service where companies can buy business applications that have already been mashed up with Salesforce.com (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/22/06, "Salesforce Dives into the Mash Pit"). Today, that marketplace boasts more than 400 applications, giving companies the ability to essentially buy customized on-demand software.

Experts say that although enterprise mashups promise to help make software development easier, they also present a new set of challenges. One of the key characteristics of enterprise mashups is that they put more power in the hands of end users. "The average IT establishment is reluctant to give users more power," says Jason Bloomberg, senior analyst at consulting firm ZapThink. The answer, he says, is for the IT department to provide oversight, defining what kinds of mashups are allowed, and then to govern that process. Software and service vendors can help companies implement management tools.

Foremost Challenge: Security

In most mashups, companies will use external services over which they have no direct control. "When you develop a mashup, you need to rely completely on that service," says Kirk Crenshaw, vice-president of Demandbase, a small software company that uses Salesforce.com mashups.

Other possible challenges include user identification, especially when mashing up two or more applications or Web services that each require user IDs and passwords. Once companies decide to allow data such as customer records to be used in mashups, they need to be able to make sure it's secure and accessible only to certain employees to guard against privacy breaches. "You always need to worry about security and performance," says John Crupi, CTO of JackBe, a company that sells enterprise mashup software.

Security and reliability are front of mind for Hababou at Soci??t?? G??n??rale as he considers ActiveGrid's handiwork. "We have to be sure that we have all the processes and all the tools to be able to monitor this application in production," he says. Right now, ActiveGrid is in the early stages of demonstrating its software to technology experts in Soci??t?? G??n??rale's Paris office.

"It will be a long process," says Hababou, "but these talks are a start."


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