Page 2 of 28

Small Business – Ebbs and Tides

The dreaded question, why should I renew my M&S – What do I get for it?

We all would like our businesses to run like well oiled machines. Software is built, and sold, M&S’s renewed, PSG group continues to grow as your name gets out is the dream but the path to the successful software business is paved with sleepless night, crunch times, mental exhaustion and exhilaration of seeing someone using your product and/or services and being so happy to recommend you to everyone you know. I have to say most days I love what I do, I get to work with lots of amazing people and to this day I actively develop tons of production code while growing BITtelligent.

For most of the history of the company we were and continue to be primarily services based. Having a long term relationship with Sage and more specifically the Saleslogix team I got to know and work with them with several of the Saleslogix technologies. I was asked to take over the Dynalink and ERPLink products and more then a year and half a go I acquired the IP rights to continue to move the products forward.

Its been a interesting year to say the least. During this time Saleslogix was acquired by Swiftpage and we have been lucky to be part of the NetSuite integration project and various other. I do really cherish  not only the working relationship but the friendships I have made with the teams over the years. We have been moving forward Dynalink and ERPLink in a slow and pragmatic way. I followed this approach as we had yet to identify the market of users and there was no transition plan of current Sage customers over to BITtelligent.

As much as we took a slower approach we had made material investments in tooling (3rd party libraries, equipment, licensing solutions), rebranded the product. Spent hours, days, weeks reworking UI, fixing defects, testing customer scenarios and adding new versions to the compatible list.

When it came to Dynalink we not only changed up the UI but we completely reworked the services engine, updated the scheduler, fixed defects, added custom actions, removed crystal reports so that we no longer had to deal with version conflicts and brought MAS 500 one way sync back in.

ERPLink went a bit differently as it really has a smaller community. The problem with synchronization platforms that are tied to specific endpoints is that your customer pool is much smaller then if you have a generic sync engine. Initially we had build (me specifically) a completely new administrator to remove any requirement on the Saleslogix sales client. To this day it remains about 90% complete but after much deep thought It was difficult to continue on without seeing a growing community. The fact is about the same time I took over ERPLink Sage put MAS 500’s future in doubt. I loved the workbench and what it offered but I could not see it providing a ROI even close to break even and had to make the heartbreaking decision to shutter it.

Interestingly not all is lost. We have been on a bit of a journey behind the scenes for the last little while and still have a ways to go to consolidate our applications (Dynalink, ERPLink, + Custom Platforms) into a more common synchronization platform so the initial vision of the workbench and consolidating our efforts will come to light.

That being said back to the initial line (what do I get for my M&S), being that we are hitting anniversaries for our first customers on M&S, the question arose. The standard answer is that for the M&S dollars the company has access to the latest builds of the product and access to submit defects and within a reasonable time obtain a resolution. The more complex answer is that the M&S dollars contribute to ensuring that the product continues to move forward, newer versions are built and compatibility is addresses before it is needed.

The reality is that M&S is rarely enough to cover the yearly costs as we really do not charge that much but it does help a bit.

Determining Features

Part of developing software is determining the right feature mix for the broadest customer base. The features are there to make it easier for the users, the internal support team or sales to generate new business. Finding the right feature that drives adoption and delights the end customer is a hard task indeed. This is more difficult when you have a smaller customer base as you now need to make sure that you can accurately cost the feature as well. Any small company needs to determine if the cost of developing and supporting the feature will be paid for within their sales and support base. As you can imagine there are a ton of features that never bear any return on investment.

BITtelligent tries its best to determine the right mix for Dynalink, Erplink and our next generation Sync platform. Unfortunately time from time a Feature does not get into the product because the cost of the feature is to high for our team to implement and current M&S/Sales will not pay for the development effort. It’s the reality of business that software development works this way and as a product vendor its difficult continue to build if there ultimately no financial reason to do this.

These decisions ultimately effect customers that may have certain business cases, or extensibility needs that could benefit with the addition of these one-off features. I have been thinking for a while how to address these needs while ensuring that we (BITtelligent) can justify the development costs. To that end I believe we are going to introduce the ‘Integration’ customization program where we can offer custom builds of our integration products allowing businesses to build off of the base functionality and where it makes most sense extending into their custom business domain. I have yet to work out the details however I believe a 2 tier method depending on if the customizations are owned by the customer or BITtelligent where the second choice would be a discount to the project rate.

Ultimately we would like to be as flexible as possible while being fair to all parties.

What do you think?

Saleslogix Conference Wrap up

As I prepare to leave the hotel to head home I am writing this. This week I attended the first Swiftpage run Saleslogix conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. I love the state, and the location always is a easy choice to host our group of Saleslogix partners, developers and Swiftpage employees.

For many of us in the community this was the first time to interact with the upper management, and hear the story behind the acquisition. The conference crossed a 2 1/2 day period and covered a myriad of topics. I was able to provide a talk on ‘.net extensions and SData’ . Although the time of my session was compressed as the earlier session ran on, I believe it was received positively. I hope to blog on the subject in the future.

I was happy to see a lot of old faces from the Saleslogix community past, and the story’s were abound by the fire pit over drinks. A lot of laughs were had, new friends made and the goal of networking succeeded.

The fact that Swiftpage had the conference with the  amount of work that each and every swifty has was incredible and should be commended. The primary importance this year was not content, or entertainment or any other indicator. The only importance here was for us, the most loyal of partners and those who invest their livelihood on the success of the platforms was  to meet the team who is running the company and understand how this story that began in May will play out. I feel in that respect I am more enlightened and can start to steer my company in the right direction.

I am hoping that there is a conference next year, and we can all sit by the fire and talk about how successful we and Swiftpage have become as partners in this journey together.

I raise a beer to the Swiftpage nation

My Thoughts–RIM/Microsoft

This morning I am feeling a bit Nostalgic. Maybe my age is showing or I realize how I grew my career though some many changes in technology. In the last few days BlackBerry formally Rim laid off 4500 people and then proceeded to enter into a agreement to sell itself to a Private Equity Firm. This hits home 2 ways. The first is because I am based in Cambridge, Ontario, just 15 short minutes drive to RIM part in waterloo. I have friends that work at BlackBerry who will be effected by the events. The second reason was that years ago I was heavily involved in BlackBerry development working on a Mobile platform before there were Mobile Platforms.

I have to say that I was quite proud of my effort on those projects and thrilled what was accomplished where our mobile tools could customize, compile, deploy and  run on both BlackBerry and Windows Mobile devices. Ultimately the company was purchases and that in itself I believe was an exciting thing to go through.

Now looking back at RIM and now Microsoft I find it interesting how much things Parallel between the two companies when it came to some of their mobile strategies. I believe I am I a position based working on the toolsets in the earlier years to comment. During that Time I interacted with both members of RIM and Microsoft and ultimately the lack of vision seems to have determined the fate of one company and severely impacted the other.

During our conversations neither customer could see their current demographics needs and it seemed at least to an observer they were unwilling to listen to their community. I also think that the earlier Microsoft devices were highly underpowered to handle the workloads that we needed in the business community. The earlier releases of .net on the devices were slow and missed many core features that the business community needed.With RIM we had been driving for on phone cameras, removable SD cards .. Things that if their phones had years earlier would have had a toe hold in the consumer market.

Now RIM has disappeared from its former glory and shortly we will see its fate shake out. With Microsoft they are pushing for their Mobile 3.0 strategy (I assume there are more tries there) with the purchase of Nokia and the release of Surface 2 devices. I am impressed on the hardware side of what Microsoft is building and thought the S2Pro at $1800 is pricy I more then likely will pick one up. The problem I have is with Microsoft’s  developer strategies of late. From the outside they seem unorganized and not as well thought out as one would think.I site the following

1. Killing off active development of Silverlight. Sure you cannot get it on IPad but that made it no less viable as a business intranet development strategy. Potentially continuing to re-invest for a few years more would have ensured that businesses continued to invest in there XAML based business apps pushing them to Win8 and not to Apple in the future. Prematurely EOL basically killed that potential upsell.

2. Charging organizations a side load license to create Win8/XAML applications for their LOB solutions. And on top of that creating what I understand a archaic license agreements where you have to buy a minimum number of licenses and on top of that you cannot transfer them. This means that I as a vendor cannot include a single license in the box to make it easier for a customer to buy our product.

3. Moving Scott Guthrie to Azure. I think Scott is awesome, but I think he was more awesome discussing the latest development tool feature (Silverlight,…). Moving on Azure it seems more like marketing a product then the geek cred that I so liked him for. I know that MS needed someone with Scotts capability in the Azure team but personally. This is a personal opinion as is all of this blog 😉

Ultimately I think 1 and 2 push developers to HTML/JS or back into Winforms/WPF. If Microsoft wants corporate adoption en Masse I really think they need to rethink #2 Because we all have alternates now causing a barrier to entry does nothing to help the platform.

I did see some Tweet the other day saying that some form of Silverlight is coming back and that would be great but its time for Microsoft to re-embrace the developer community and as they say ‘Show them some Love’. There is a lot of us faithful but we are fickle and will move away.

Breaking Backwards Compatibility

is it sometimes it right to break compatibility of older versions of a software. This is a question that many of us struggle with. I am in the midst of that struggle as I push forward on the ERPLink release and determine the right answer.

Currently within the product there is a key component that serializes datasets to the database. These large blobs of xml data are not compatible with some of the forward technologies that we want to use in our different clients, let alone the format allows for a ease of getting more data then one really needs. This ultimately leads to longer the required sync times. I was never a fan of the storage of query data this way as it was pretty localized nor of the display format on the grid as it was never that clean however it was the way it was.

I am now at a point of changing that so that we can have a more structured data set. I am also going to break out child data tables from the parents allowing for at a time fetch support. This will ultimate lead to more records in the querydata table however pushing to structured data will lower the size of the data in the blobs and make it ultimate more consumable from other tools.

Ah to my tuesday …

SalesLogix and VS 2012 4.5

I like the latest and greatest toys to get my job done. All the new shiny attracts me but from time to time I get smacked down by making a choice by jumping on the new .. one such smack down was with VS2012 and 4.5. A strange issue was occurring while compiling the web site whereas tables with runat tags would break. With SalesLogix there are several places where this occurs mostly to allow for the setting of the visibility of the table. This is a know issue with Microsoft and a HF will be released (or so it has been told) but in the mean time working with SLX should be done inside of VS2012 without 4.5 installed on the machine.

BITtelligent ERPLink Update

One of the most requested features of late is web forms for ERPLink. They are a long time coming and I am happy to say great progress is being made on them. I want to give a bit of history behind the forms and then provide you with a glimpse of the new web forms that will be included in the next iteration of ERPLink from BITtelligent.

Initially the ERPLink web forms were a collaboration between a Business Partner and Sage in development. I was working on the Sage side to enable API access to the system. Progress was made and a iteration or 2 was provided out to the community to test and confirm the functionality. Not a lot of feedback came and other priorities took over in the mean time. One of the biggest problems with the web forms was the usability story. ERPLink is a pretty heavy sync engine that works in process meaning that it was quite possible that there could be lockups, timeouts and potentially crashing of the IIS process when doing a link and sync. Also most of the core functionality was provided through SalesLogix LAN client. Management and Loads would need the client to be installed even in a web only environment.

When we acquired the ERPLink and DynaLink IP some tough decisions had to be made, some I am still living with since we are not yet ready to come to market and we have done what we can to provide timely updates to the progress of the updates we are making to the platform, however the changes are quite substantial and take both time and effort (as well as $$s) to execute. We have finished principal development on DynaLink and are ready for providing CTP to customers who sign up to the BITtelligent software assurance program. It’s a great time to do so because the feedback will shape the product and the features in a meaningful way.

ERPLink however is taking a much longer time. It’s a bigger beast and we really want to make sure its completely ready for prime time. We have in the mean time built out a interim release based on the HF code release that is branded and includes some incremental fixes. This interim release will be provided to any existing ERPLink customers who sign up the the software assurance plan and they will automatically be eligible for future releases of the platform.

Now back on web forms. Though the team at Sage have created an incredible product in SalesLogix and I am very happy to work with all of them I had to make some critical decisions on how I was going to invest into ERP integration into the Web client. I mulled over the current smart part architecture and the bundler. Also how 3rd party functionality integrates and the development effort required. I also balanced it out on the product plans that Sage has publically stated for both MAS 500 (now Sage 500 ERP) and SalesLogix. Factoring in the future push for windows 8 and some more immersive UI’s and the goal of standardizing on a code base in the future for all of our integration platforms. Ultimately I had decided that for US (BITtelligent) a focus on XAML based UI technologies would give us the best in several worlds. For the following reasons we are picking Silverlight as the UI web forms technology for our ERPLink integration;

  1. Simpler packaging and distribution in .xap files where we do not need to worry about merge/upgrade issues with SalesLogix smartparts
  2. Silverlight currently has a greater published support lifespan then MAS500 (MAS 5+ years, Silverlight 10)
  3. Quicker development time. We can develop all of out UI code outside of the SalesLogix build/deploy cycle. There are robust tools and the code can be contained into 3 known tiers (UI/Services Façade/DB access)
  4. Easier to integrate both platforms in our UI. To reduce the sync cycles we will be adding dynamic queries as an option. Therefore there will be a huge win on the daily data request cycle.
  5. Though this is subjective I believe with XAML based tech we can provide a better UI with a greater ROI
  6. Shared code base. Moving forward a lot of the assets can be shared seamlessly between a win forms (WPF)/Web and future Win8RT client

and there are other reasons. Its always good to review product goals and ensure that the investments that we make coupled with the investments our customers make .. well .. make sense. Its tough to predict tomorrow but for our team we will need to focus on the consolidation of efforts and platforms and choose technologies where we can deliver the greatest value with the least effort.

This post includes some screenshots of the upcoming ERPLink web plugins. Hopefully you will like what you hear and see and I welcome your comments.