From the data center to the smart device, from digital signage software to the cloud, VARs have traditionally done a lot of the heavy lifting for others in the tech ecosystem. But that ecosystem is changing so dramatically and so quickly, a new approach really must now be considered.
For Value-Added Resellers, it’s time to think about wearing a new hat: Independent Software Vendor (ISV).
The amount of disruption is near or at an all-time high for the Information Technology industry. Software platforms that didn’t exist three years ago range from Android to Microsoft Azure to iOS. Use models are in the middle of the most radical change since PC makers began building notebooks with Wi-Fi antennas.
The guidebook toward navigating through this disruption means, in many cases, value-added resellers will need to act like independent software vendors. They will need to write more software than ever before to perform a wide range of functions.
Tiffani Bova, a longtime channel expert and Gartner Group analyst, recently told an audience of solution providers at Everything Channel’s XChange Conference in March that writing code will likely be a key in delivering solutions and taking advantage of new opportunities.
“It’s almost impossible to deliver a hybrid solution, meaning on-and-off premise solutions, integrating multiple cloud providers, as well as … private clouds without writing some form of software: APIs to get the on-and-off premise to speak with each other; you may have to write little tools to get databases to communicate with each other,” Bova said. “And more than anything, the two things that really start to make cloud work are metering usage and chargeback.
“If you’re not able to meter the usage in cloud … how is it truly able to spread the cost to those that are actually using it? Or are you actually just standing up the same kinds of environments you have had, because it’s virtualized?” Bova said.
Software doesn’t just add value, in other words, she said.
The same, too, could also be said about software for mobile platforms, or software that can run across platforms.
The bad news is that VARs seeking to build into software development will have an investment to make. The good news is that there are a number of global technology vendors that are also at the same starting point with platforms ranging from Microsoft Azure for cloud to BlackBerry PlayBook for mobility. (Research In Motion launched the BlackBerry PlayBook as this article was being written.)
RIM, for example, is eager to build out its PlayBook ecosystem and could be—for some VARs—a good company to partner with on developing their own ISV capabilities.
It helps VARs measure that value in billable form as they deliver cloud solutions and more. But, Bova said, there is more than one route to this destination. Either develop the skills to write code, or partner with smaller software developers who can.
But even then, it’s important to understand the levels of complexity of different development platforms, as well as the levels of opportunity they can provide. Oh, and there are many platforms.
If you were around in the earlier days of the IT industry, when client platforms included Windows, OS/2 and Mac OS, and saw the complexity of cross-platform solutions, you know it’s nothing compared to today. Not only do cloud solutions require skill sets, but mobile platforms at the edge of the network, as well as newly adopted solutions like digital signage.
Not only will VARs need to understand platforms that are, today, literally weeks old, but they will need to understand how they can drive value or destroy value depending on whether they are deployed intelligently and appropriately.
NEXT: The NewSoftware PlatformsPLATFORM: APPLE iOS
SDK and Available Tools Apple provides Xcode 4.0.2 and the iOS SDK 4.3, which amounts to the complete Xcode developer toolset for Mac, iPhone and iPad. This includes an Xcode Integrated Developer Environment and Software Development for the Apple iOS platforms. The iOS Developer program runs $99 per year (when we first signed up more than a year ago, it took about two weeks for the subscription to activate.)
What do you get for your money? The developer program allows for writing, testing/debugging and distributing apps through the iTunes App Store for those wanting to hit a broader market. To develop and distribute, work needs to be done on a Mac system.
Opportunities: Compared to other platforms, this is a relatively low-cost way for VARs to step into the ISV waters. Whether it’s to extend an existing customer application to the iPhone or iPad, or create a new app to solve a business problem, this is a fairly low-risk way of taking aim at a potentially high-reward market.
Challenges: Before an app is placed in the App Store, Apple puts it through its notoriously rigorous approval system. And while joining the developer program is a relatively low-cost, hassle-free process, developing apps that extend an enterprise’s IT investment to the edge of the network will include, perhaps, more nontechnical issues than technical ones.
Differentiation: Apple’s developer program allows for software to be written across desktop, notebook, tablet and smartphone platforms -- making Apple the only technology vendor with that degree of reach in the client stack. (Hewlett-Packard is working toward that same breadth of reach as it readies its WebOS-based tablets for launch, but that hadn’t happened as of this writing.)
PLATFORM: GOOGLE ANDROID
SDK and Available Tools: The Android community now provides the Android SDK R11 for Windows, Mac and Linux development environments—a significant advantage over Apple. In addition, several revs of the Android SDK, starting with the Android 2.1 platform and up to Android 3.1 (which is also optimized for tablets) are available for download for free. There are also built-in economies on the Android OS for developers, including the Android Native Development Tools. These allow code writers to build applications using C and C++; apps also run in a virtual machine (the Dalvik Virtual Machine). This means that big components of apps can be repurposed between apps as a development shortcut.
Opportunities: Android and all the code is open source, and its developer tools and kits are free of charge. That means that with the right amount of background in programming, VARs will not need much capital investment to jump in and start writing apps for the Android platform.
In addition, Research In Motion is aiming to launch its “Android Player” for its new BlackBerry PlayBook platform this summer—meaning apps written for the Android platform can also work on BlackBerry PlayBooks.
Challenges: Android is not considered secure enough for many enterprises, although the community is working to fix that. However, VARs may find those security issues to be deal-breakers for delivering value-added solutions now.
Differentiation: As with Linux, which is also open source, VARs that write code for the Android platform can set their own price for their work and maintain more control over the developer environment and code. Though Android as a platform or community may not provide the hand-holding of other vendor platforms, VARs that want or need vendor independence should prefer Android as a software development platform.
PLATFORM: BLACKBERRY TABLET OS
SDK and Available Tools: This platform was only weeks old at press time, but Research In Motion executives have made it clear that they believe working with ISVs and VARs to build applications and solutions will be key.
For this platform, RIM has established two, separate developer environments: one with the BlackBerry Tablet OS SDK for Adobe Air, and one with the BlackBerry Tablet OS SDK for WebWorks.
Here we believe that VARs who seek to hone new development skills may find it easier and more effective to begin developing on the Adobe Air technology; in addition, apps for the BlackBerry PlayBook can be written using Adobe Flash Builder 4.5, which is included in Adobe’s Creative Suite 5.5. There are more than 3 million developers worldwide on Adobe’s technology—which could potentially give significant early momentum to this brand-new PlayBook platform. Further, apps written for PlayBook using Adobe Flash Builder could be repurposed onto other mobile platforms as well, including Android.
The BlackBerry Tablet OS was built on the QNX operating system, which is deployed in a variety of enterprise and government solutions throughout the world. Adobe technology, including Flash and Air, were baked into that.
Opportunities: RIM’s heritage is in the enterprise, and it has made it clear that the BlackBerry PlayBook—with the BlackBerry Tablet OS—will integrate with other pieces of the RIM stack, including BlackBerry Enterprise Server. Down the road, as early as this summer, RIM will also provide tools that will allow development of apps around its BBM messaging application on the BlackBerry Tablet OS -- a potentially attractive aspect to this new platform.
Challenges: RIM is late to the game in the tablet space, and its smartphone business is disappointing the market with its sales—largely blamed on the success of both the iPhone and Android devices. Investing resources in this platform, in such a competitive arena, will be fraught with risks not seen with other development platforms.
Differentiation: BlackBerry is still a brand-name technology, and its market is among the most fiercely loyal in the IT industry. VARs who build software apps to run on the BlackBerry Tablet OS for the PlayBook have the potential to tap into that loyalty and platform investment by customers even under the most competitive circumstances.
NEXT: Software Platform: WebOSPLATFORM: WebOS
SDK and Available Tools: Hewlett-Packard has publicly released its WebOS 3.0 SDK, and the company is clearly gunning to win over VARs, ISVs and iOS-focused developers. Here, HP has the potential to turn its VAR channel into a weapon against Apple -- which has exhibited what many believe to be ambivalence toward VARs in the past.
Opportunities: HP clearly brings to bear an intriguing future for VARs that are building out a software development practice. WebOS as a platform may have stagnated when Palm was a stand-alone company, but now with HP focusing on growing its cloud business, and with CEO Leo Apothekar having a deep background in enterprise software, the opportunities for developing on the WebOS platform could be enormous. Much of this will depend on HP’s engaging with the channel and executing delivery of tools that VARs can use to tie the back end of the enterprise to the edge of the network with software.
Remember that HP is the world’s biggest computer company, and for much of the past decade it has strongly encouraged its channel partners to lead with the entire HP product stack.
Challenges: HP doesn’t have a WebOS tablet in the market yet, and every day that passes without one is a day that RIM, Microsoft, Apple and Google (and its OEM partners) gain customers and advantage. We are told HP will have its tablets ready by year’s end, and it’s already been showing off demo units.
In addition, the WebOS app store is, to be kind, lacking. There are very few apps that are compelling—and it’s hard to find any that would, on their own, convince enterprises to standardize on the WebOS platform. So while the tools are solid and could help steal away some iOS-focused developers, VARs looking to develop a software practice may want to wait until they see HP more aggressively moving to win them over to the platform.
Differentiation: Palm’s WebOS powered perhaps the first, true handheld smart devices and it was built out of the culture that created the Palm Pilot—a product that revolutionized the idea of the mobile platform. HP revolutionized, in many ways, the idea of technology for everyday business. While mobility may be the latest and greatest, the HP-Palm team is one that’s withstood the test of time.
PLATFORM: MICROSOFT AZURE
Microsoft has been saying for almost two years now, both in private discussions with VARs and publicly, that it will move its entire product line to the cloud—from the desktop to the data center. More recently, with the open beta of Office 365, that strategy has begun to show much more focus.
The centerpiece of its cloud strategy, though, is Microsoft Azure -- its infrastructure platform for developers. It is integrated tightly into Microsoft’s existing Windows ecosystem; for those fluent in Visual Basic and .Net, it should not be difficult to take the plunge.
Built on the foundation of Visual Basic and .Net, some industry observers have said that Microsoft has built this with a Windows “lock-in” for developers. For something as simple as integrating the Windows Azure development into your environment, Windows Azure Tools for Microsoft Visual Studio requires .Net Framework 3.5 SP1 and either Visual Studio 2008 SP1 (Standard or above), Visual Web Developer 2008 Express Edition with SP1 or Visual Studio 2010 (Standard or above) or Visual Web Developer 2010 Express Edition.
To simply access the tools and infrastructure, we needed to install everything on an instance of Windows Server 2008. If it looks like a lock-in, quacks like a lock-in … you get the picture.
But lock-ins don’t have to inhibit business. Some would say Apple’s strategy surrounding iPhone and iPad is to build a lock-in, and that hasn’t hurt Apple. And in previous computing eras, lock-in certainly hasn’t hurt Microsoft in a noticeable way.
So you’ve met the requirements to install the Azure tools, you’re familiar with Microsoft’s Visual Basic-based programming environment and you want to build cloud-based applications.
Azure isn’t free. There are pay-as-you-go plans and subscription plans, based on storage, data transfer, fabric access control transactions, caching and use of SQL Azure.
SDK and Available Tools: Microsoft’s Azure SDK, and an infrastructure that is fully integrated with Visual Studio and the .Net framework, which also supports Eclipse, Java, PHP and Ruby, means developers with a broad range of competencies can jump in and begin working -- whether it’s writing new software for the cloud or porting legacy software.
Opportunities If Microsoft says that it is moving its entire product line to the cloud, that would, in fact, be a fairly sizable opportunity. On the flip side, not being able to write code that works in the cloud -- particularly the universe of software written to run on Microsoft platforms -- would be a fairly sizable disadvantage.
Challenges Writing an application for the cloud using Azure isn’t exactly like writing a quick script or browser plug-in. Not only that, but it’s not clear how much small or midsize businesses are investing right now -- or will invest in the near term -- in putting their Microsoft-based enterprise into the cloud. VARs who invest in developing on Azure as a platform will undoubtedly see a payoff at some point, but it’s not clear exactly when.
Differentiation: For many VARs building an ISV business, Azure’s differentiation will be its familiarity. Investments made in core skills in .Net, for example, can be leveraged in Azure. Microsoft also has a TechNet community that is among the most robust technical communities in the world, which can provide a critical support element for resellers who are seeking more stable footing as they build a software-development practice in the cloud.
Last year, NASA and Rackspace announced they were teaming up to create an open-source cloud development platform, called OpenStack, and they were working with a number of different companies throughout the IT industry.
SDK and Available Tools: Wow. This is not development for the faint of heart. When this community’s own introduction to the SDK’s installation instructions uses such phrases as, “mileage may vary,” and to “consider them to be rough outlines or general guides for helping you deploy your own development or test environment,” you better have graduate- or Ph.D.-level programmers on hand. That’s what you have with OpenStack’s development environment instructions. Face it: NASA helped spearhead this platform and it’s got its own rocket scientists on hand -- literally. VARs seeking to build an ISV capability should keep that in mind if considering OpenStack.
Right now, OpenStack is up to the Cactus release of its development platform—which launched April 15. That’s its third major release in less than a year. Its next major release, Diablo, is slated for Sept. 22.
Opportunities: It’s open source, so the opportunity is a strong one for those who make the investment to build solutions using the OpenStack platform; namely, they can establish their own pricing for products that are built and they can reuse their own code for more and more projects down the road.
Challenges: Because it’s open source, the lion’s share of VAR and ISV technical assistance is community-driven. And it’s a relatively new community. And, as noted, there should be a high-level of expertise.
Differentiation: Again, because it’s open source, solution providers can essentially determine their own differentiation on finished solutions.
PLATFORM: ADOBE FLASH
Adobe Flash has been an industry mainstay ever since it was known as Macromedia Flash, before Adobe bought Macromedia. What makes it an important platform now is that it will support app development on multiple platforms, including new ones such as BlackBerry Tablet OS and Android. While Apple has largely shunned native-run Flash on its iOS platforms, it is still an important platform for software development and could be a starting-off point for VARs who may be nervous about building an ISV practice.
SDK and Available Tools: As difficult as OpenStack may be for some, Adobe Flash is easy. It’s taught in high schools. And Flash Builder is now part of the Adobe Creator 5.5 suite; it’s about as turnkey a platform as you can get for software development.
Opportunities: Adobe Flash is a write-once-run-many-places platform for developers, and with emerging platforms such as the BlackBerry PlayBook and Android leaving footprints in IT, the opportunity to write client software as well as apps is strong. Flash is also a nifty platform for writing multimedia applications for digital signage solutions, which often require video or high-intensity graphics for impact. VARs that dip into the digital signage pool will likely find nice value in writing software based on Flash.
Challenges: Apple doesn’t appear ready to embrace Flash at any time in the near future for its iOS platforms, at least not natively -- which means a VAR investment in Flash, even a small one, may not provide a quick-and-easy way to build solutions for iOS and other platforms.
Differentiation: Apple aside, Flash is still a premium development platform for the Web, it’s still an important platform for a growing footprint in the mobility world, and it provides nice flexibility to create rich multimedia apps.
The bottom line: New platforms require software, and many reseller customers will require new platforms. With cloud and mobility, in particular, competition among vendor technology providers will only get more cutthroat, and, traditionally, this has been a time when they turn to the channel to win the war.
Each of the platforms we’ve evaluated in the CRN Test Center, and discussed in this article, are platforms on which VARs have particular opportunities to extend their reach with investments that may be manageable or where vendors may provide assistance.
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