Software as a Service: Is SaaS Really a New Concept or the Revisiting of an Old Idea?

Software as a Service: Is SaaS Really a New Concept or the Revisiting of an Old Idea?
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The SaaS Ideology

One of the hottest topics in the computer software industry today revolves around the concept of SaaS, or Software as a Service. It could take volumes of books to fully describe SaaS and all of its offshoots, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to stick to a relatively basic definition of the term. In general, SaaS refers to software that is housed on a remote server and accessed via a network of some type, such as the Internet. For example, if you’ve ever used a web-based email client like Gmail or Hotmail, an online virus scanner, or a browser-based office suite like Zoho or Google Docs, then you have experience with SaaS.

SaaS offers a lot of advantages for people from all walks of life, and more individuals and companies are starting to turn to SaaS products for a variety of reasons. But is SaaS really a new concept or is it an old idea that is taking advantage of new technologies?

In the Old Days…

Even though SaaS and cloud computing continue to gain momentum in the software world, most people are more familiar with desktop applications that are either installed to a PC via CD/DVD or downloaded from a software vendor. However, this wasn’t always the case.

Back when computers were still a rarity in the average American home, they were already making their mark by being widely used in business and education. However, it was extremely rare for any employee or student to have access to a stand-alone computer that actually had individual “desktop” software on it. Instead, most people used terminals that were networked to some main server that housed the software. Many of these stations consisted only of a monitor, a keyboard, and the necessary hardware to connect to the main computer where all applications and data were stored. Others did have some type of external storage device that allowed users to store data files locally.

So, in a sense, the SaaS concept was already being used when computers first went mainstream. What changed?

In order to be effective, SaaS solutions require a stable, fast networking method that allows the user of the remote computer to connect, access, and use the tools on the server machine. When the PC boom began, this was something that was not available to the average home user or, for that matter, small business user. First of all, in order to connect to a remote server back then, you needed a modem – not a cable or DSL modem, but a regular old telephone modem. Not only was this mode of connection extremely slow, but it also tied up the telephone line during a time when it was unusual for a household to have more than one phone. On top of that, a tiny blip in the connection could cause the user to become disconnected, often losing valuable data in the process. Further, if the remote server wasn’t local, the end user could end up paying a pretty penny in long distance charges for extended use.

These are just a few of the reasons that it became almost a necessity for home PCs to be “self-contained” and be able to house all the software a user would need. As software needs grew, so did PC hardware innovation, but that’s a story for another day.

Moving on to present day, why is the SaaS concept making a comeback?

For one thing, a reliable means of remote connection that’s both fast and secure is rapidly becoming a non-issue throughout the world. You don’t have to be a big business or educational facility anymore to get access to high-powered servers. All you need is a broadband or similar connection to the Internet – something that is becoming more commonplace every day. With that major barrier being rapidly chipped away, SaaS solutions are actually viable options for a larger percentage of the population.

It will be interesting to keep watching the SaaS industry to see how much of a dent is placed in the traditional boxed-software market. Even the desktop giant Microsoft seems to be moving in this direction with the release of Office 2010, which will have an online counterpart. Will desktop software fade away completely? At this point, I’d have to say that’s highly unlikely, but who knows what the future will bring.