One evening three years ago I attended a customer event at the Paradeplatz in Zürich. Together with the company's management, a colleague had invited guests to celebrate his new job at Appway. Attendees were comprised of decision-makers and -influencers from the financial industry. Appway was introduced as a client onboarding solution for financial institutes and insurances. An enjoyable occasion, but nothing special.
With all due respect, software development is a distinctly inefficient process. The fragmentation of skills of different people involved in the project requires an incredible amount of coordination. Misunderstandings are literally preprogrammed. Translating the needs of the business into usable requirements is a process that occurs in loops, which merely allows incrementally approaching the desired software product. Regarding this, the world was simpler 15 years ago; bad software was simply accepted. It was normal that product x or product y couldn't accomplish something or acted in a strange manner. This acceptance has disappeared – and rightly so. However, this also means that general requirements have strongly increased. To cope with this pressure one can try to utilize a number of different tools; agile methods to slim down the process and increase transparency for the product owner, excessive use of automated testing and the utilization of basic frameworks such as Symfony and others in order to access standardized functions, to name but a few
One result of this is that much of what was once developed is moving to the configurative level. This process started slowly and is currently accelerating; in my opinion we will experience a true revolution in development for business applications within the next five to ten years. What clients need are cheaper and more flexible applications to be able to meet the ever-increasing demands of end users. We would see much more innovation and digitization in business, if these were to be had more rapidly, more simply and at lower cost.
A “Business App Builder Platform” that can be managed by consultants without development skills creates enormous advantages. Using this platform the business architect can design a solution directly with the product owner. The role of the user experience designer becomes even more important. The entire process becomes much leaner and cost-efficient, meaning that solutions can be introduced into the market much more quickly. At least that's the vision.
The impact on the software industry is significant. It's obvious that many of the software firms that currently develop, maintain and license niche products have no right to exist in their current form. We will continue to need developers, but I think their tasks will continue to move in the direction of configuration/parametrization.
Back to Appway: Appway actually is precisely such a “Business App Builder Platform”; however, since the founders were committed to the noble creed of self-financing, they needed to find a lucrative niche sometime during the company's history. For Appway this was, and continues to be, client onboarding. Since that time, Appway has been perceived as a software manufacturer for client onboarding solutions.
The various laudatory speeches at the event mentioned above were all captivating; however, the true highlight was Oliver Brupbacher's presentation, in which he illustrated the basic idea and operation of the Appway platform using a flipchart and an Edding (it's to your advantage if you can draw!).
I was left with the impression that the majority of the audience was confused by the presentation. They were too tightly sworn to the topic of client onboarding and financial applications. What was then later shown in the demo came very close to the way I envision a proper “Business App Builder Platform”. I left the event fascinated and with the distinct feeling that neither Appway nor the attendees really understood what they actually had.
They are by far not the only ones working on such concepts. Various smaller vendors have jumped on the bandwagon. Intrexx for example has been offering similar functionality for years and I can remember a conversation with a CIO of a mid-sized chemical company that took place in 2002: Using Intrexx he designed process-oriented applications for those employees who were having a hard time with the ERP. And some of my former colleagues are trying a similar approach with their Evola project. There are others, as well.
All players share one commonality – they have not yet been able to achieve this paradigm shift. No one has established himself as a standard. Intrexx and Appway would both be capable of doing so, but they are currently succumbing to their own virtues.
In order to remain self-financed, Appway decided to occupy a niche. Accordingly, the mantra of Hanspeter Wolf (founder and CEO of Appway) is, “Rather be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.” He and his team have been able to grow the company to a respectable size using only the company's own resources. To accomplish this through bootstrapping was only possible by concentrating on a niche.
What heretofore had been an advantage has now become a disadvantage, as the company is perceived as a provider of software for the financial industry and the insurance sector.
However, efforts towards a “platform” are now being made. For instance, the platform is thematically the center of attention on the website. By chance I met an Appway employee for lunch yesterday. He spoke about the business with a passion found only in up-and-coming companies. He also spoke about Appway's efforts to more strongly position itself as a platform vendor. Way to go.
I think Appway (and I mean both the product and the company) really does have the potential to be at the vanguard of this technology revolution. The window of opportunity is still open.
But, the company can only do this if it can convince as many users as possible in as short a time as possible. The costs for attempting this with conventional and licensed-based strategies would be enormous. And it would be impossible for a self-financed company to raise the required funds.
As someone who has been doing business in the Open Source arena for ten years, I of course see only one possible approach. Make the product as ready as possible as quickly as possible, so that it can be published as Open Source. Accompanied by good Open Source marketing it will rapidly spread and quickly gain users and a large following. The idea in this entire constellation is to generate revenue streams and create an ecosystem that turns us all into winners. How this can be done has been shown by various companies, e.g. MuleSoft and Magento, to name but two who have become industry leaders in the interim.
Such a radical restructuring represents a corporate dilemma, however – especially when a company has been bootstrapped. After all, a lot of energy has been invested; and now, just when the business is taking off, one is supposed to put all one's eggs in one basket? Unfortunately, that is exactly the case.
All companies that grew rapidly in a short time and redefined markets had to wager their businesses on a new future at one or more points in time during the company's history.
This is just like starting over – with the single exception that now one has a lot to lose.
The good news is that there are also middle-of-the-road approaches to this problem. “On-the-one-hand-as-well-as-on-the-other-hand” models: Keeping existing business and customers on the one hand while revolutionizing the market on the other. In any case it still remains a risk.
The alternative to this risk is that the window of opportunity closes. I am convinced that we will witness a vendor introducing a “Business App Builder Platform” into the (broad) market within the next two years, a platform that can be run by business consultants with average technical aptitude. This platform will fundamentally redefine our attitude toward software. And I am equally convinced that this software will basically be Open Source. I would be thrilled to have Appway be that vendor.