Software On Tap. Part 1

17May

Through the Internet, application service providers (ASPs) are making software acquisition and maintenance easier and cheaper.

With the vast connection abilities that the Internet offers, your facility can now reach members in ways that only a few years ago would have been impossible. The most exciting part is that the potential of the Internet is just being tapped. Entire business processes are being redefined to take advantage of this new capability. (Consider the role of the traditional travel agent when you can now book all of your travel online.) Driven by a demand for better services, software vendors are retooling their products to become Web-enabled. This trend of linking the Internet and software will change the way health and fitness facilities do business.

Implementing software

The current process. For the most part, software applications within the fitness industry (member management, billing, facility management and assessment packages) are now distributed on a series of disks (diskette or CD-ROM). Once installed and configured, users are locked into a particular version of the software. Because of the effort and inconvenience of upgrading software, you (or your system administrators) are probably thankful that a new set of disks doesn’t arrive each week. Yet, you would probably appreciate the new and improved features that were added to the product or, more likely, the fix to the software bug you discovered last week.

Although your software vendor genuinely wants to deliver the most up-to-date and defect-free product, the reality of quality software development is that the version of software you received on disk is, at best, a couple of months old. This is because, at some point, the development team has to “lock down” the software’s source code and test, debug and prepare the finished product for distribution to hundreds, if not thousands, of users. Meanwhile, the product team is well underway in designing the next version of the software.

Internet software distribution. Compare the traditional model of software distribution to that of services being provided via the Internet. With the Internet Application Services model, all of the software’s program logic remains centrally located on the vendor’s Web server. When a new feature has been created, it can be placed in a single location for the benefit of all who subscribe to the service. This can cut the time-to-market down to days, as opposed to months. The same holds true for software defects where patches can be applied immediately into production.

Software compatibility. Compatibility is another challenge for the traditional way of deploying desktop software, as a particular version may only work with specific operating systems. Consider the following compatibility issues: Mac or PC, Windows version (3.1, ’95, ’98 or NT), CPU speed, total system memory (RAM), network operating systems, etc. All of these variables must be compatible with the version of software you select.

To address the compatibility problem, the new trend in software development is to accommodate an open architecture, meaning that the software can remain independent of the underlying hardware/operating system architecture. This is done by using the Internet Browser (Internet Explorer and Netscape Communicator) to provide an open standard for the software. Now, users can collaborate within the same software application, sharing the same database while some are running Windows, Macintosh or even UNIX machines. This model will protect your investments in hardware, since the emphasis is now placed on the speed of your Internet connection, not the power of your computer.

Using vs. owning software

The concept of “use vs. own” is actually very simple. Instead of licensing software (or developing your own), building and maintaining an internal network, and staffing your own systems/database administrators, you subscribe to an Application Service Provider (ASP) that offers the software you need to run your business. The fee structure is typically based on a per-user, per-month model, allowing for faster implementation and lower capital costs. More than likely, the subscription service fees will fit within your monthly operational expenses.

An ASP is a company that is paid for software-based services across the Internet. ASPs provide services that allow subscribing businesses to cut the cost of running software applications by reducing the need for information technology staff and for buying the software and related hardware. The focus is exclusively on the business market, with special emphasis on core business applications such as accounting, operations, collaboration and electronic commerce.

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