Sage ERP Accpac 6 Competitive Advantages
A key goal of the Sage ERP Accpac 6.x series is to completely revamp the Accpac User Interface technology. The goal is to transform Accpac into a technologically leading product again. We want to ensure that through this technology transformation we make Accpac an extremely competitive market leading product. This blog post will look at the technologies being incorporated into the Accpac 6.x platform and compares them to other technologies to highlight a few of the differentiators that set Accpac apart. We will also examine what we will be able to do with the building blocks being put in place.
This blog posting talks about the technologies being incorporated to make Accpac more competitive. However there is much more to competitiveness than the technology platform being used. We are also making changes to business models, marketing, product features, integrations, migrations, verticals, etc. All of these have just as big an impact on competitiveness as technology. All of these reflect that Accpac isn’t sitting still, but that all departments are moving ahead at a rapid pace to stay ahead of the constant change that we see in the market today. But I’ll leave those topics to other people’s blogs.
Besides advancing to more modern technologies and providing a platform for future development, we are taking the opportunity of a User Interface rewrite to give the product a usability rework in the process. The goal is to greatly improve the learnability of the product, and to greatly increase the productivity of customers. This is from performing extensive end user testing and from applying modern user interface design techniques. Typically applying advanced usability to an ERP product has been the domain of small business products like Simply Accounting or Peachtree. We are looking to bring the ease of use of a small business product to the mid-market space and to develop this into another competitive advantage. We are also looking to greatly improve our user assistance, for more see: http://smist08.wordpress.com/2010/06/19/sage-erp-accpac-6-user-assistance/.
The general trend in technology is to go Web. The question isn’t whether, but how and when. A key trend driving this is that people just don’t want to install software anymore. It’s a pain. They want to just browse to a web site, possibly sign up, log on and work. People have many devices whether a PC or Mac, iPad, iPhone or Android. Ideally they would like to do their work from any of these and not have any hassles of downloading and installing applications. This trend on the front end is well underway without any resistance to adoption. On the back end many people are asking the same questions, why do we need to maintain all this server and network infrastructure? How do we reduce these costs and just have our applications work. This is driving SaaS (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Software_as_a_service). This is still underway with many problems still being solved like protection and privacy of data, what happens if you SaaS application goes out of business, control, customizability, etc.
Many of our competitors continue to develop Windows desktop applications using technologies like .Net WinForms (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_Forms), Java Swing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swing_(Java)) or WPF (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows_Presentation_Foundation). These applications will only run on Windows, they will not run on mobile devices, Macs or Linux PCs. They are designed exclusively for PC sized monitors and will only run on Intel/AMD hardware. The claim is that they can give a richer user experience than Web based applications, which perhaps true ten years ago, is no longer true today. Currently applications written with HTML4 can easily match the richness while applications embracing HTML5 will exceed this richness of interaction, while remaining open and device/hardware/operating system independent. Typically such applications haven’t reached the ease of use level common in Web applications like Facebook or Gmail.
Many of our competitors still use ActiveX controls (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ActiveX) and Java Applets (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Java_applet). Again requiring special plug-ins or limiting browser and device choices. These are really just ways to start Windows applications from inside the Browser.
Many of our competitors have gone with Adobe Flex/Flash (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adobe_Flex) to create their Web Based UIs. The problem with these is that you require an Adobe plug-in for your browser for these to operate. This means they do not work on many phones and other devices like the iPad. They also sometimes don’t port to all platforms, so if you have 64-Bit Linux, you are out of luck.
Many of our competitors have embraced Microsoft Silverlight (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_Silverlight). This is worse than Flash, in that there are very limited choices for where it runs and you are really limited to only running on Windows PCs in IE or on Microsoft Phones which so far haven’t been very popular.
Reducing TCO is a key goal of Accpac 6. Initiatives here include requiring only a Server installation, no workstation setup, nothing else that needs to be installed on the individual workstations. Not requiring any special firewall or network setup, having everything use standard HTTP (or HTTPS). Making customizations upgrade safe, allowing you to upgrade and have customized reports and screens just work. For more details see: http://smist08.wordpress.com/2010/03/12/on-total-cost-of-ownership/.
As we move forwards we want to provide a more powerful customization model. A powerful customization model and robust SDK has always been one of Accpac’s competitive advantages, and we want to extend that. Studying what people customize currently and seeing if we can incorporate this into the product as part of the UCD review process to eliminate the need for customization. But when customizations are required we want to:
- Make more customizations straight from forms without requiring code.
- Make customizations upgrade safe.
- Have many more customizations possible from the UI designer.
- When code is required, ensure we provide the power to do more than we can currently.
For more on customizations see: http://smist08.wordpress.com/2010/02/05/sage-erp-accpac-6-customization/.
Many of the technology choices and architecture we chose was to provide a foundation for future innovations including:
- Browser Independence: Due to time constraints the first version will fully support only IE 7 and 8. But everything we have done is set to support Firefox, Safari and Chrome as well. This would include desktop and mobile versions of these Browsers.
- 64-Bit – All the new technologies are fully 64-bit compliant. You can run the 64-bit versions of the browsers. Now we are set to compile our Views for 64 bit and to produce a 64 bit version of Accpac when needed. As we scale we will be able to take advantage of huge 64-Bit memory spaces.
- SaaS – Although we are shipping as an on-premise install to start, we have architected the system for SaaS deployment at a later version.
- Advanced end to end integrations enabled through SData. As other Sage applications like SageCRM move to the same platform, we have the opportunity to integrate much more closely. With common UI components and a common SData Web Services layer, we can provide much more cross application functionality in UIs, Reports and Workflows. For instance see: http://smist08.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/on-the-sage-gcrm-contract/.
- Performance/Scalability – With the adoption of SData Restful Web Services we can use advanced Web performance tools to test and expand the scalability/performance of Accpac from where it is today. See http://smist08.wordpress.com/2010/02/26/sage-erp-accpac-6-performance-testing/.
- Server Independence – All the technologies involved in the Accpac 6 platform are server operating system independent. So we can produce a Linux Web Server version easily if we choose to do so.
- Full Unicode Support – All the new technologies fully support Unicode, so this sets the stage for creating a full Unicode version of Accpac.
- HTML5 – For our first version we are only using HTML4 features, but since we are built on the Google Web Toolkit (GWT) and Google is aggressively pursuing HTML5 we will automatically be getting HTML5 features as they become available in the various Browsers.
- Connected Cloud – As a Web Based application, built from the ground up on RESTful Web Services, we are ideally situated to integrate with other Web Based applications based on Web Services whether these are locally installed or cloud based. This can include common ERP services like sales tax calculation or government reporting, but also integration to other services like Social Networks or Web Based Office applications (like Google Docs). Our technology platform is ideal for both consuming and producing such services.
With the Sage ERP Accpac 6.0A platform we want to ensure that Accpac is a leader in Web Technologies, Usability, Customizability and TCO. Expect to see a progression of exciting releases kicking off with 6.0A later this year.
Update 2010/10/10: Forgot to mention competing against Web 1.0 companies. Many of our competitors went to the web early with technologies like ASP.Net. These are all Web 1.0 applications meaning that they aren’t a very rich user experience and often result in fairly major page refreshes as you work. These companies may claim to be Web 2.0, but usually they have only patched in a few specific cases for show and you soon realize it isn’t used in most of the product. Many of these companies were start ups and are still fleshing out full ERP functionality and so don’t have time to go back and do a major refactoring of their UIs. Accpac’s new Web interfaces are fully Web 2.0 which use Ajax everywhere. All server calls are asynchronous and we only update individual DOM elements, never doing a page refresh. Since Accpac has full ERP business functionality already, we aren’t still filling in missing pieces.