5 cloud app trends to expect in 2013

Doug Henschen | Information Week

We’ll see more mobile options and embedded analytics, of course, but surprises will include growth in financial apps and big-data insights

Some of the trends we’ll see in cloud-based enterprise applications in 2013 are obvious, while some might surprise. Here’s my take on five trends to expect in the new year, along with examples and advice on how to ride each wave.

Mobile options multiply. This is one of the obvious trends, as it’s clear that tablets and smartphones are the preferred interface for executives, salespeople, managers and even not-so-mobile employees who accept that there are no longer barriers between work life and home life. Every credible cloud apps vendor is addressing mobile, but one standout is Salesforce.com, which offers native apps as well as growing HTML5 support.

There’s no single right way to support mobile, so look for options. Does your vendor (or prospective vendor) have separate native apps for tablets and phones that do justice to each form factor? If not, has the vendor progressed to HTML5 content that adapts to a range of devices? If the vendor relies solely on Web-based access, has it at least designed with mobile browsers in mind? If you still see scrollbars and tiny buttons that were designed for mouse-and-keyboard interaction, it’s not mobile-friendly. Try before you buy.

Embedded analytics proliferate. Here’s another established trend that’s sure to keep growing in 2013 because users naturally want reporting and dashboarding options right in the context of the apps they use every day. One standout on this front is Workday, which offers particularly deep and configurable embedded analytics.

What should you look for? Start by considering the out-of-the-box options for reporting and dashboarding. Next, consider the configurable options. Can you bring external apps and data sources into the mix, or is it a stovepipe of analysis of data generated within the app? What’s the latency of the data — will the reports and metrics show up-to-the-minute data, up-to-the-hour data or yesterday’s information? Don’t forget to consider the analytics embedded in mobile apps. Can your phone truly be smart if it’s not serving up metrics and dashboards? When it’s mobile, it really should be up-to-the-minute data.

The need for insight usually goes beyond the confines of a single app, so it’s important to consider partner offerings and options for working with well-known BI systems and data warehousing platforms. Salesforce.com has a panoply of partner options, while Microsoft (with Dynamics CRM Online), Oracle (with Fusion Apps, Taleo, RightNow and so on), and SAP (with SuccessFactors, Business ByDesign and other cloud options) offer ways to work with their popular respective BI and data warehousing platforms.

Configuration options abound. Configuration options are quickly replacing the need for customization across all applications, whether delivered in the cloud or on-premises. That’s because most organizations want to avoid developing and maintaining custom code. In the configuration approach, the vendor supplies menu- or wizard-driven interfaces that let you expose industry-specific functionality or set company-specific controls. Workday, for example, uses configuration to deliver features designed for colleges, universities and government agencies.

It’s not that configuration is easy; it’s a setup step that will likely have to be handled by deep technical experts during an initial deployment. But at least you won’t have to worry about tweaking and testing code every time the application gets an upgrade. When you’re using custom code, there’s always a chance it will have to be redeveloped when changes are made to an underlying application.

There are cases when custom development can be a big help, particularly when you need functionality that the vendor just doesn’t offer. That’s why Salesforce.com, for one, offers the Force.com development platform while NetSuite provides SuiteBuilder customization tools and a SuiteFlow workflow engine. Consider both configuration and customization options when choosing a cloud app, but customize only when there’s a clear return on the ongoing investment required.

Financial apps emerge in the cloud. Cloud-based financial apps are growing in number and seeing healthy demand. Cloud suite vendors Workday and NetSuite provide the general ledger and accounting functionality associated with ERP systems. The same is true of FinancialForce.com, minority owned by Salesforce.com and majority owned by European ERP firm Unit4.

On-premises giants Oracle and SAP seem to be waking up to the threat. Oracle introduced cloud-ready Oracle Fusion Financials in late 2011, and SAP released Financials OnDemand in November. The latter is based on functionality from the SAP Business ByDesign suite, and it’s likely to be paired with SAP SuccessFactors human capital management applications to answer the competitive threat from Workday.

For a deeper level of planning and budgeting functionality in the cloud, look to pure-play financial performance management vendors such as Adaptive Planning, Anaplan, Host Analytics, and Tidemark. Adaptive Planning, founded in 2003, has more than 1,200 customers and 30,000 users, and in 2012 it acquired cloud business intelligence vendor MyDials to bolster its dashboarding capabilities. Host Analytics, founded in 2000, has deep CFO-oriented functionality, including consolidation, and it’s the second-largest vendor in this group, with more than 800 customers and 14,000 users. Anaplan and Tidemark are fast-growing startups. SAP and Oracle are just starting to bring performance management functionality into the cloud, so check their roadmaps if you’re inclined to stick with your on-premises software vendor.

Financial apps may never become as pervasive as CRM in the cloud, but the increasingly global nature of even midsized organizations — with income streams and financial management needs on several continents — makes cloud-based deployment an attractive option.

Big data adds benchmarking value. A few cloud vendors have recognized that they’re sitting on an incredibly valuable asset: the data generated by their many customers. The trick is aggregating this information in a secure, de-identified way such that it can’t be traced back to a particular customer. This idea is not new. ERP vendors and user groups have collected and aggregated data for years in order to compile benchmark statistics. It’s usually a data-swap affair in which you agree to provide your own data to the aggregated pool in exchange for access to the average and best-in-class statistics across your industry.

SuccessFactors jumped on the benchmarking bandwagon even before it was acquired by SAP, tapping into aggregated data from thousands of cloud customers to deliver by-industry employee, departmental and total-workforce metrics such as operating profit per full-time employee, the turnover rate among top-performing employees, internal hiring rate and voluntary termination rates. Workday recently announced plans for a Workday Big Data Analytics offering, set for release in the second half of 2013, that will bring third-party data sources into the analysis without complex ETL requirements. The more data you can bring to an analysis, the more accurate it’s likely to be, so we like the idea of big-data-enabled benchmarking.

These are five cloud apps that we’ll be watching in 2013, and given Oracle’s plan to acquire Eloqua, announced recently, there’s one more trend to watch in 2013: continued acquisitions of cloud-based marketing automation and marketing analytics companies. That trend started with IBM’s purchase of Unica a few years ago, and since then SAS, Teradata, Oracle, Salesforce.com and others have jumped on the bandwagon. As we see it, most of the demand for marketing applications is in the cloud.

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