Why SaaS has a reality gap with business

Lack of choice on interface, features also a problem

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Forget, for a moment, all of the very real and valid arguments about why software as a service can pose a real risk to the privacy and accessibility of your data.

You know why SaaS makes my teeth itch sometimes?

Interface updates.

You know what I mean: you get used to a certain way an online service is put together--where all the buttons are, the secret little tricks to making it work better for you--and then, thanks to an overzealous UI designer, developer, marketer, or some combination of all of these, one day you log in and everything's changed.

Google is a particularly bad actor in this regard. A few weeks ago, the Google Plus interface was changed. Mostly it was for the better, though suddenly on my wide-screen monitor I was left with a massive display of white space on the right side of the web page.

They're not the only one, of course. I am still reeling from Facebook's switch to their default timeline interface. And actor Wil Wheaton has his own rants about YouTube's interface changes this week.

In fact, I would be interested to find an online service that hasn't performed some sort of major interface change at least once in the last calendar year, all in the name of improving user experience or (more likely) improving advertising space.

Now, right off the bat, I will completely acknowledge that all of these changes are completely subjective: you may love what I hate, and vice versa. That's cool, and I get that. My problem with these changes is a broader than the changes themselves.

My problem is with the fact that usually these changes are just implemented without any choice on the part of the user.

Yes, some services are good about presenting you with links to their new upcoming "beta" interfaces, so you can test drive them first before the new interface is rolled out for everyone. This is, I believe, a bit more palatable, but at the end of the day, it comes down to one basic truth: you're going to have to use the new interface whether you like it or not.

I am not dismissing the arguments about how important it is to keep a hold on your own user data that sits within these services, and how important it is to be able to migrate away from such services. But on a daily basis, this really doesn't happen all that often. Such migrations are painful enough and data policies obfuscated enough that most people are going to just leave their data where it is.

But where I get confused is why users aren't up in arms more about something that seems to happen on a regular basis, and right in their face, too: all these interface changes. For me, this is the most visible symptom for everyone, not just hard-core geeks like me that this isn't your own software anymore.

Think about this: even proprietary software has enough backwards compatibility to let you stay with a version of that software if you don't want to upgrade to something new. If I don't want to use Office 2010, I can stick with 2007. Not forever, I get that, but longer than I would if I use SaaS alternative.

Because if Google Docs makes a feature or interface change? It's there instantly and I can't change it back.

I could have used LibreOffice or OpenOffice as an example, but I wanted to achieve the mind-blowing irony that in this one regard, Microsoft Office--the poster child for vendor lock-in--is actually more attuned to user freedom than SaaS.

This represents a real problem of that SaaS should address: not only keeping out data accessible but also letting use have some sort of choice with how the tool is built. Features, interface, workflow… in SaaS the user is at the complete mercy of the service provider, who can make a new release anytime they want.

My friend Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols thinks this is basically something we signed up for when we agreed to use the service, and if we don't like it, we can always take our business and data somewhere else.

Vaughan-Nichols is right, but pragmatically this end solution can be tricky. I can walk away from Google or Facebook or whatever SaaS, sure, but what do I give up in the meantime? More traffic? Integration with other services?

And that's just me, one guy in Indiana. What if I have plugged my business into a SaaS application in order to cut costs, and the provider decides to suddenly change the application's interface? Who's going to pay for the time lost in retraining everyone on the new features? Or even just the time lost as my employees kibbutz for a morning to readjust to the smaller changes? The service provider? Hardly.

If SaaS is going to be a real force in the business world, then openness and choice needs to be part of all of the service, not just the data.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Zettatag and Open for Discussion blogs and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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