How New Software Platforms Open the Door For VARs To Become ISVs


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.

The HP WebOS SDK provides what HP says is a seamless transition from the OpenGL/SDL environment that iOS code-writers use in the WebOS environment. Basic knowledge to get started building apps for the WebOS platform are fairly simple: JavaScript and HTML.

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.

PLATFORM: OPENSTACK

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.

COMMUNITY: Connect with the CRN Test Center at community.crn.com.