• Intuit and Microsoft Sign Deal to Serve SMBs


    Huge breaking news this morning is that Microsoft and Intuit (see disclosure here) have agreed to work together on the Intuit Partner Platform to bring a host of products and services to a greatly expanded customer base. This really is massive news for anyone involved in small or medium business – be it as a business themselves or in anyway selling technology products or services to SMBs.

    First a slight recap – Intuit developed the Intuit Partner Platform in the words of Alex Chriss, Business Leader of the IPP to:

    Bring end to end, best of breed products to small and medium businesses by providing an open ecosystem where customers have choice of products and developers have a choice of what tools and platforms to build on

    The Microsoft tie up is beneficial for the two vendors themselves, existing and future IPP and MS developers and the end customers. Let’s look at the gains to each of those groups:

    Intuit and Microsoft

    Since the withdrawal of Microsoft Money, commentators were trying to determine what Microsoft’s strategy would be with regard to SMBs – we all know that SMBs constitute a huge and lucrative market. This relationship gives both Intuit and Microsoft access to the channel of the other – there’s hundreds of millions of SMB users of MS products who will now be exposed to the IPP, while Intuit’s customers will now have access to products built by Microsoft‘s developer community.

    Microsoft gets a ready built channel to increase the uptake of its Azure cloud computing offering and, at the same time, gets themselves a ready built SMB applications marketplace.

    The developers

    Existing IPP developers get access to a massive new channel of potential customers, the ability to deploy their applications on Microsoft’s infrastructure and the ability to natively use Microsoft development tools.

    Microsoft developers get the ability to utilize the tools the currently do, but market their products on a specific SMB marketplace backed by a channel with millions of customers already.

    On a technical level, the diagram below sets out how the various integrations will actually work:


    The customers

    IPP’s stated aim is to give SMBs access to an end to end range of software tools – with this deal customers just got a whole lot more choice. Intuit is committed to integrating Microsoft’s Business Productivity Office Suite (BPOS) onto the IPP by the end of the year – this will mean IPP customers get the ability to use Exchange, SharePoint and (once they’re introduced) the online office products – all leveraging the core IPP offerings of single sign on, common data, single billing etc.


    The playing field just got really interesting – over on The Small Business Web – a large number of small SaaS vendors are trying to build an ecosystem that includes clear and open APIs and a comprehensive offering of business applications – done correctly the relationship between Intuit and Microsoft could very well provide the same value – but potentially more quickly and more easily for the end customers.

    APIs are great – wonderfully valuable things that allow applications to work together. But a common data model of the sort that the IPP is built around, is even better, allowing applications to be built from the start around an underlying and consistent model of data.

    I spent a few hours today talking to the founder of a SaaS business app that is still very much in stealth mode – we both discussed our concerns about the high aggregate price that businesses would be forced to pay for an integrated set of separate applications with all the duplication that entails – IPP is one way to drive efficiencies that can in turn deliver the holy grail of reasonably priced point-to-point solutions for SMBs – the space just got even more interesting…

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  • Looking At Platforms


    Earlier this year at the Enterprise 2.0 conference “platform” was the name of choice. Seemingly every company I spoke to was a platform player. It seems the latest “fart on demand” iPhone application is a “platform for virtual flatulence…

  • Software+Services…. Intuit Bets that Desktop Software Ain’t Dead Yet


    Considering CloudAve’s core thesis is the move to cloud computing, and given this authors penchant for cloud applications, one would have thought any development in the desktop software space would be dismissed. The truth is somewhat different however. I’m…

  • IntuMint – What an Intuit Owned Mint Could Mean


    Wow… exciting. Eagle eyed CloudAve stalwart Krishnan posted about the reported purchase of Mint.com by Intuit (disclosure – the Intuit Partner Platform is a consulting client but I had absolutely no previous knowledge of this deal nor any insight into Intuit’s plans).

  • The Skinny on Google's New SMB Application Marketplace


    Last week I speculated to some impending announcements from Google about application stores specifically tailored to the small and medium business market. Well, readers didn’t have to wait long, Google has just launched what is essentially an SMB application marketplace – A place where (they hope) customers will discover, purchase and deploy integrated third party cloud applications.


    The Google Apps Marketplace is a store front aimed at the 25 million individual users that Google apps has across two million businesses. It’s a standards looking web application space that leverages some core facets:

    • Central management of application availability


    • Universal navigation within and between apps


    • Single sign on
    • Secure data access via OAuth

    In terms of the business details, later in the year Google will be releasing a flexible billing API for vendors to allow them to set their own pricing policies – either way Google extracts a 20% revenue share for applications purchased through the Marketplace.

    I spoke with Bob Warfield, CEO of Helpstream who are part of the salesforce.com AppExchange (a similar, yet slightly different, app store). Helpstream acquires around 100 sales leads a month from their involvement with the store. I asked him what vendor and customer drivers there were around involvement on an app store. Not surprisingly, Warfield’s answer showed the bipolar nature of application store involvement:

    For a vendor, app stores are all about how much traffic they bring you.  I suspect for buyers, they’re all about how many choices they bring.

    It seems to me that Google’s approach is a somewhat limited perspective on what app stores can achieve for SMBs. Platforms (notably the AppExchange and the Intuit Partner Platform (see disclosure) have a much broader set of touch points than does Google’s incarnation. Whereas the other two examples use a broad common data model, Google’s is limited to management at the back end and calendar/docs/mail at the user facing end.

    I put this to Scott McMullan, enterprise lead at Google, who expressed the position that Google believes “the web is the platform, and where common data models are typically created” a seemingly more open approach, but one that arguably drives less benefits to end users than a more proprietary, but richer, approach. I spoke to Sunir Shah from freshBooks about this matter and he, unsurprisingly, supported the oepn web view saying:

    The reason the Open Web is important is because closed platforms lock small businesses into solutions they may not want with services worse than why the free market provides. The lightweight data structures is how the Web works best: small pieces, loosely joined. Forcing third vendors to buy into a massive monolithic data structure locks them into a smaller market which limits how much they can grow and reinvest resources into innovation.   

    Shah was also very positive about Google as a player in the marketplace saying:

    I am a big fan of them. Not just for the obvious reasons of their size and market reach but because from the beginning they have put a huge emphasis on building a marketplace the right way. For years they have supported the Open Web movement and helped usher in protocols like  OpenID and OAuth. They have reached out to partners and competitors to involve them in a fair and meaningful way. Moreover working with them has been great. They have been extremely helpful and I just want to give them a public high five for that. 

    McMullan’s view about open versus proprietary platforms was that:

    We’re [the more proprietary platforms and Google’s more “open” approach] both promoting “integrated apps”.  We just tend to bring different types of data to the party to integrate. Intuit has a lot of transaction/finance data, so they’re extending the value of that into other contexts.  We have a lot of collaboration and messaging and user profile data, so we’re looking to make that more useful to users.

    This view is, unsurprisingly, borne out by Intuits Director of the Partner Platform, Alex Chriss, who told me recently that the IPP, with its common data model, will be more appealing for SMBs who want a “one stop shop” for their apps. “The simplicity of sign up and sign in and the ability to have data working seamlessly across applications is a very powerful thing” he said.

    I also questioned McMullan about The Small Business Web and it’s goal of getting SaaS vendors to work together and publish open APIs. McMullan was positive about the initiative, saying that “I know this group and we like what they stand for.”

    McMullan and I talked about app stores in general and for SMBs in particular. I asked McMullan whether there were synergies between what Google is doing and other SMB plays such as the AppExchange or Intuit’s Partner Platform. While not wanting to look too far forward, he was positive about Intuit’s approach saying that “We believe strongly in what they’re doing w/App Center for sure and are fans. Synergies are mainly ahead of us, given we don’t do much together, other than believe this is part of the future for small businesses acquiring software”

    It should be noted that with the launch of the Marketplace, Intuit and Google are working together as Intuit has an Online Payroll application already listed.

    So… as for the Google initiative. With 25 million users it almost guaranteed that developers will flock to the app store (at launch there are already around 50 applications available). The current APIs available to developers are well proven and hence integration with the store should be relatively straightforward. McMullan gave an example of Google apps appearing within Atlassian’s Jura application (see below) as a useful and efficient use case for users.


    Coming up on the road map are what Google calls contextual gadgets – in the same way that Gmail is now automatically embedding YouTube videos with Gmail, so too could application developers chose to have contextual data from their apps embedded in an email – see the image below showing Appirio data within Gmail. This is from a real product “PS Connect” that Appirio are demo-ing at the Google CampFire right now.


    All in all it’s an exciting move. The purist in me would have wished for a far higher granularity around data integration points and a richer common data model but notwithstanding that I’m fully confident that Google’s app store will gain significant traction in the marketplace.

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  • Summer Fun – Rant Redux #2


    In an attempt to sleigh dragons and battle demons (or maybe that’s the other round) I often go into battle to try and get some sense and scale into the marketing messages that I hear from PR.

    2009 seems to be destined to be remembered as the year of the Platform – when every startup was intent on “creating a platform”. I often railed against this and begged for some sanity – one of my favorite posts on the subject was back in October when i got all hot under the collar after the Boston Enterprise 2.0 conference.

    I tried to get some definitions around what I see as being the main platform types – hopefully it added something to the mix…

    Earlier this year at the Enterprise 2.0 conference “platform” was the name of choice. Seemingly every company I spoke to was a platform player. It seems the latest “fart on demand” iPhone application is a “platform for virtual flatulence generation”, that the latest Twitter clone with negligible uptake is “a platform for global collaboration” and the maker of a time tracking widget is “a platform for enterprise efficiency and ROI generation” – I can’t help but rail against that and yell “enough of the platform already!”

    One of the sessions at the conference included half a dozen or so vendors of microblogging products, true they all had various takes on the theme and offered different services, but they shared the common feature of providing microblogging. Somewhat surprisingly every one of them proclaimed that they were a platform. I couldn’t help but ask a somewhat tongue-in-cheek question – when every single product on the web calls itself a platform, we’ll have to invent a new word to let wannabe players impress VCs.

    The inimitable Phil Wainewright recently released an excellent report looking at different aspects of PaaS, I thought I’d try and bring a philosophical bent to the discussion.

    In my mind, to claim the moniker “platform” a service needs to have a number of attributes; an ecosystem, critical mass, beachhead status and openness. So what different types of platforms do I see out there?

    Monotheistic platforms

    What I’ve playfully called monotheistic platforms leverage one particular business process and attempt to build a platform around that. It’ll always be a niche but so long as it’s a big enough niche it’s worth following. Force.com is the originator of the PaaS moniker. It’s clearly gaining an ecosystem, with third parties developing applications that live within its world and it’s also seemingly gaining some critical mass. Force.com however is less than open – it dictates how applications can be written, it dictates (to a certain extent) how applications look and it’s central view of the world is CRM-centric (although admittedly less so now than even a few months ago). Force.com is a platform but it’s what I’ll call a niche platform.

    Like Switzerland, only different, and bigger

    Platforms that span the divide between on-premises and SaaS and that do so in a neutral way are arguably something of a nirvana. These platforms interact seamlessly with the web environment, while also federating to on-premises applications. They also broaden the offering such that vendors can chose parts of the stack to adopt (billing, authentication, data models etc). As for size, like anything in business, reach is critical and this is where the incumbent players have an edge – having the ability to leverage an existing customer based but introduce them to a platform is the gold many platform plays would die for. I’ve written before about the Intuit Partner Platform(disclosure – IPP is a client) and I contend that it’s an exemplar of this type of platform play – both from a vendor perspective and an end-user centric viewpoint.

    Ego Platforms – The Id

    To use Freud’s term, these platforms cater for the Id part of our personalities – these social platforms are built around individuals core desire to connect and find meaning from the people around them – exhibit one, Facebook. One can’t deny that Facebook has true critical mass, it also has a plethora of third parties creating offerings surrounding it. It’s beachhead proposition is “the social graph” but again it’s fairly closed. I’d temper that last statement however to say that Facebook Connect is a move towards becoming a more open, amorphous platform.


    Pantheism is the view that everything is part of an all-encompassing, immanent God. Without talking about the utility or otherwise of Twitter, it is the ultimate pantheistic example. To continue the pantheistic analogy, it is a platform that doesn’t focus at all on the anthromorphic expression of itself, rather it’s an abstract expression – the “tweet” is a semi-abstract thing that takes on different shapes and forms at different times. The ecosystem that has built up around Twitter is phenomenal – this is precisely because it’s a platform that doesn’t dictate where players are or how they look. From this point of view Twitter is ultimately open. The critical mass they have is a little debatable looking at statistics of users who are actual active. Twitter’s beachhead status is communication – often vacuous communication it must be admitted but communication nonetheless.


    Co-operative platforms attempt to build critical mass through symbiosis. The Small Business Web is a good example of this. The Small Business Web, according to its founding partners

    is a movement to bring together like-minded, customer-obsessed software companies to integrate our respective products and make life easier for small businesses. While there are many products available for small business owners on the Web, the approach we’re taking is to use each others APIs to provide a high-level of integration between these applications and create a more seamless experience for our customers.

    In other words a bunch of small SaaS start-ups got together to try and build an alternative to the single site best-of-breed application. By working together on integrations, they’re slowly build the ability for small businesses to pick and mix functionality according to their specific needs.


    Not eveyone can be a platform, but everyone sure wants to be. I’d be keen to hear readers thoughts about this post and how they see the platform battles shaking down over the next year or two.

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  • Levion and the Promise of Hybrid Accounting Software


    As the accounting software industry moves to a general acceptance of the fact that customers demand the sort of benefits that cloud application bring, there are two distinct approaches vnedors are making; Pure-play cloud vendors (FreeAgent, Xero etc) build…

  • Back to the Future–FreshBooks is Accounting


    Disclosure – the accounting space is an area I follow closely and one in which I have spent time consulting with a host of different vendors. Full details on my disclosure page but suffice it to say I have…

  • The Google Apps Marketplace–Chances of Survival


    Over on his blog, VC Brad Feld posted about the experience of three of his portfolio companies being part of the Google Apps Marketplace – Spanning, Yesware and Attachments are all built on top of Google Apps and Feld…

  • Some Xero Analysis


    A month or so ago I was asked to provide some comment for the Natonal Business Review to go with Xero’s full year financial report. I was positive but with reservations and comments. In response to my comments, Xero…