Application service providers
(ASPs) might be able to cure the common cold, or they might be the Edsel
of computer software—depending on which hour you checked your NASDAQ stock.
As always, the truth is somewhere in between these extremes. As working
librarians, we need the power of ASPs to organize critical information
for decision making. We also need to separate the hype from the reality,
so we can decide when to use ASPs and when to use other software. Increasingly
sophisticated databases, calendaring functions, and even financial management
software make ASPs factors that serious managers must consider.
|So what's the real story
on ASPs? Do they work? Are they viable options for purchasing applications?
As catalog librarian for
the Douglas County (Oregon) Library System, I oversee both acquisitions
and cataloging functions in a 10-branch public library that serves 100,000
people living in a county about the same area as the state of Connecticut.
We have a total staff of 4.5 FTE in acquisitions and cataloging, a materials
budget of around $200,000, and limited funds for office automation other
than our in-process DRA upgrade. I have been exploring free application
service providers to use in our library, and I have found ways to use them
both in library operations and in related organizational work.
A Little History on ASPs
ASP definitions can be
so broad as to be meaningless—a problem that was exacerbated last spring
when the tag "ASP" was good for a few million dollars extra in venture
capital funding. In general, the consensus definition of an ASP is a Web-based
computer application that resides on a server rather than on a local personal
computer. The acronym ASP arose as a play on ISP (Internet service provider),
when some companies began positioning themselves as providers of enhanced
services in addition to plain Internet access. Now the term can apply to
software available for anywhere from free to "only" $30,000 or more.
Large organizations use
applications across the entire firm or enterprise. These enterprise-level
ASPs require substantial local information technology and support staff,
even if the application is running on an off-site computer, in addition
to license fees and related costs. They are called "enterprise-level ASPs"
not because you could build a Federation starship for the same price (it
only seems that way), but because they are used throughout the organization.
Consumer-level ASPs are
targeted to small businesses, individuals, and organizations. Many of these
smaller types of ASPs are available for free at a basic level, with monthly
charges per user for more advanced service levels. This consumer-level
ASP market may be longer-lasting than enterprise-level ASPs because smaller
organizations have less access to their own information technology staff
or budgets. Also, the ASP offers what may be a small organization's only
chance to obtain a specific type of software, such as project management
software that's too expensive to buy outright but is affordable as a per-user
In addition to riding last
year's venture-capital boomlet, ASPs were also heralded as the Next New
Thing because of the expected spread of broadband Internet connections.
If your Internet connection ran as fast as your internal network, what
difference would it make if software resided on your PC or on a server
in Milpitas, California? Unfortunately, as I learned decades ago while
bodysurfing off Sullivan's Island, South Carolina, getting ahead of a wave
leaves you just as dead in the water as missing one altogether. In business
as in bodysurfing, timing is everything. Broadband connections didn't roll
out as quickly as predicted, so ASPs were left to dog paddle in some very
They Are Everywhere!
Just as you may be surprised
by the silly advice you'd get from a Magic 8 Ball, you may be surprised
to discover that you're probably using an ASP right now. If you have an
Internet-based e-mail account—on Hotmail, AOL, or any similar service—you're
an ASP user. You are using an application (e-mail) being provided
by some service that you can access from any Internet-enabled PC
or appliance. E-mail accounts through AOL or Earthlink are ASPs offered
by ISPs, since the companies also provide Internet service as well as applications.
One of the first and still
most widespread ASP uses, free e-mail demonstrates the advantages and inherent
weaknesses of this business model. It's really great to read your e-mail
anywhere you have Internet service, instead of leaving it inside some PC
that isn't where you are when you need the information. Nothing's back
at the office or scribbled on a note that's in your other coat/purse/laptop:
All your messages are right there whenever you need them.
If you're lucky with your
free e-mail ASP, enough other folks are clicking on those banner ads and
ordering enough stuff to keep the advertisers paying the ASP so they can
offer you free e-mail. (You're not ordering all those tchotchkes,
are you? Lord knows, I'm not.) If the clicking stops—i.e., when folks stop
buying stuff from online ads—your ASP is going to be hungry. We saw an
outcome of poor ad revenue in December 2000, when AltaVista cut off its
free Internet service because advertising revenue wasn't enough. The company
added a subscription fee thereafter.
Following shortly after
free e-mail, free calendaring services became a major consumer ASP. Calendar
programs now accompany many e-mail services (see http://www.netscape.net
for examples), so you can keep track of events while responding to mail.
One merger that may signal an interesting convergence was the purchase
of anyday.com, a pioneer calendaring ASP, by Palm Computing, producing
the site http://www.palm.net.
MyPalmportal, which opened for business late in December 2000, permits
users to maintain Web-based calendars, notes, and contacts in a format
that can be downloaded wirelessly onto Palm VII hand-held personal digital
ASPs in Action in Libraries
In my library system, we
needed fast answers to questions about our continuations titles and budget.
I discovered the Bitlocker Web site (http://www.bitlocker.com)
and found an easy-to-use, no-cost ASP that let me create our own database—right
down to the names and qualities of database fields. Bitlocker gave us the
power to manage our continuations information in a database that I designed.
Our acquisitions unit replaced a card file with a database that tracks
titles, prices, dates received, and anticipated dates of next editions.
Selectors can get lists by title, by vendor, or by anticipated due dates.
Bitlocker allows you to
create fields and define them as text, numeric, date, or yes/no test questions.
The date field can default to today's date, permitting one-click entry
for check-in. Also, fields can be preset for specific values that appear
as pull-down menus. The Vendor field, for example, is set with a list of
our continuations vendors (and choices for "Direct" and for "Other," since
you can choose only from the options in a value table whenever you link
that table to a field).
There are limitations (hey,
it's a free database), but a database like Bitlocker has its advantages.
For one thing, you can add fields after the database has been created and
you have entered data. Say you'rehalfway through entering 1,200 titles,
and you realize that you don't have a field for the local bibliographic
control numbers. Just create a field, specify whether it's text (alpha
or alphanumeric) or numeric (to be used in computations), and the field
is added to all items in the database.
One of the limitations to
Bitlocker is that it's a flat database. You can't create multiple levels
of information for each item (e.g., price per title per year for several
years) to generate multidimensional reports (e.g., average cost per title
per year). Within that limitation, however, you can sort the database by
any series of fields you choose and arrange the resulting report according
to fields selected.
|... you may be surprised
to discover that you're probably using an ASP right now.
We have used Bitlocker to
help plan our reference book budgets. Douglas County is in an area that's
on the information tar-and-gravel road rather than the information superhighway,
and we've been experiencing budget declines due to structural economic
changes. This isn't the Oregon of today's high-tech plants; it's the Oregon
of yesterday's timber mills. Our county's declining timber-based revenues
have required rapid budget revisions (Some revenue reductions have been
suddenly announced for the forthcoming fiscal year just after initial budgets
were submitted.), so we've needed reporting capabilities to identify strategies
for budget cuts. We can also coordinate our continuations lists more readily
with vendors by e-mailing them published reports of titles.
You can design reports easily
in Bitlocker. Simply name the report, select the fields you wish to include,
and indicate any predetermined sorting (e.g., alphabetically by vendor
and by title). All predefined reports appear as hyperlinks attached to
the description of the database they use. For example, we have separate
databases for continuations (reference titles) and for standing orders
(predominantly fiction). Each database description includes links to specific
reports. You can download reports or an entire database to your own PC.
Downloads are sent as zipped files, but you can use any number of free
or low-cost programs to unzip them into spreadsheets or word processing
The ability to share reports
via e-mail is an advantage of an ASP like Bitlocker. Reports and lists
can be set to various levels of public or private access, so that only
certain staff members are authorized to change data while many others can
view the data.
I also use the When.com
calendaring application as a staff calendar for our acquisitions and cataloging
units (see Figure 2). Always available
at http://www.when.com, this shared
calendar lets us note meetings and appointments and send e-mail descriptions
of the events to appropriate personnel (such as supervisors and timekeeping
staff). Everyone has separate lines of communication—family, professional
associations, library committees—that aren't universally known. Recording
events on a shared calendar helps to coordinate meetings when everyone
has to attend.
Project deadlines can be
put onto the shared calendar just as well as meetings. Many calendaring
ASPs can be coordinated with programs for PDAs, allowing Web-based synchronization
for dates and deadlines.
Other ASPs and Their
You can consolidate group
calendaring and document management functions in a single ASP such as Planet
an office productivity suite (sorry to use that much-abused noun, but it's
necessary here). It can give you an instant intranet—an Internet layout
that is available only to employees with passwords. One feature is that
you can name your workspace in Planet Intra, so you could have a URL something
Groups of workers can collaborate
on documents, share calendars, e-mail each other, and conduct threaded
discussions on topics. They can also engage in real-time chat. (Yes, chat
isn't just for teenagers anymore—it's increasingly important in real-time
business communication.) Planet Intra is free for three users (perhaps
a small public or special library, for example), and $12 per user per month
for more than three.It's not the cheapest solution for more thanthe smallest
operation, but it's an interesting alternative to PC-based software. A
better ASP would have been HotOffice, which was consistently highly rated,
but HotOffice has gone out of business. (Check out the article called "Cover
Your ASP" in the January 2001 issue of eCompany NOW magazine, p.
138, or on the Web at http://www.ecompany.com.)
Financial ASPs allow Web-based
access to your organization's books. An example is Netledger (http://www.netledger.com),
a system that is compatible with Quicken databases. Data can be uploaded
into Netledger or downloaded into Quicken, if you want to maintain a file
on a PC. The advantages of Netledger are that data are archived twice daily—so
backing up is not an issue—and that the software is upgraded as needed
without your having to purchase or even mess with downloads or CD-based
installs on your PC. That's a time and money savings right there.
ASPs for Support Groups
From my experience on organization
boards, I know that it's increasingly difficult to get people together
for volunteer groups. The treasurer is away on business one month (or two,
if your scheduled meeting is on the same date as his or her monthly audit),
the secretary's out of town another month, and their reports are securely
lockedaway in their PCs at their offices. Volunteer organizations are finding
it more and more difficult to recruit board and committee members at all,
much less to coordinate all of these folks into project-based groups.
ASPs offer an alternative
commons, as it were, permitting people to meet and work together in spite
of schedule conflicts. People can get together via a meeting ASP like Webex
or establish common meeting times with calendaring software. Prior Web-based
committee meetings can lay the groundwork to make in-person board meetings
An ASP-based organization,
which has a chiefly virtual presence, is the ideal model for ad hoc activities
like bond campaigns for publicly supported libraries. You assemble a team
of community leaders; coordinate contact among them, your electorate, and
the media over a discrete time interval; and then your team dissolves after
the election. This is an ASP-based model if ever there were one: Press
releases, databases of contributors, reports to governing authorities,
and Web site content all can be generated with a minimum of "face time"
in meetings. I experimented with this possibility by creating a small Web
page for lead workers in a State Representative race in the 1998 election.
At one site, campaign officers had access to e-mail links to the candidate
and campaign manager, to the opponent's Web page, and to logins to the
Bitlocker and Anyday ASPs for the volunteer database and campaign event
calendar. The system worked, but it also pointed out some of the limitations
of ASPs. In the next section, I'll look at those issues.
Asking the Right Questions
OK, you're saying, if ASPs
are this great, then why aren't librarians welcoming them as openly as
the townsfolk in Blazing Saddles greeting the new sheriff? As I
mentioned at the beginning, bandwidth is one problem. Here are some key
questions to ask, to decide whether you and your library can deal with
1. How old is your hardware?
ASPs don't like legacy systems, and they'll die on a 386 PC. If you don't
have higher-level Pentium (and its upper-level competitors like Athlon)
or later-model Macintosh equipment, you're in for disappointment.
2. How robust is your Internet
connection? If you're in an isolated rural area (such as the empty quarters
of Oregon), your phone company's idea of a cable modem is an extra layer
of wax on the string connecting tin cans—and you're probably going to have
trouble dealing with the data volume requirements of most ASPs. You'll
get slow loads at best, and timeouts at worst. Check for wireless, though:
There may be wireless alternatives in your area that will put your computer
in bandwidth city.
3. How much data are you
willing to risk in a Web-based setting? Forgetting for a moment those bugaboos
raised by Ann Landers and Dr. Laura about the evils of any Internet contact,
you still need to decide if the connection between you and the ASP is secure
enough for the kind of work you're doing. Much of the ASP dream was to
run big, mission-critical applications for large companies who would rather
pay therental than buy the application. Those samelarge companies, however,
are loathe to put their company's most sensitive data on a server in Milpitas,
California, when they'rein Davenport, Iowa. This is a combinationof human
factors and technological factors—and it's a big reason the ASP market
is growing faster in smaller organizations that can't afford to buy their
own copies of applications than in large ones that can.
But the most important question
is, Will your ASP be around in a year or two? The original draft of this
article had a few paragraphs on HotOffice, an excellent ASP for office
productivity. HotOffice, rated tops by computer magazines evaluating digital
offices, went away—there's no connection to http://www.hotoffice.com
Probably more than other
factors, this issue has contributed to the slow adoption of the ASP model
in business. Statistics show that, of around 480 ASPs now in existence,
60 percent will be gone in 2 years. Another 18 percent will be merged out
of existence in 4 years. Perhaps as few as 5 percent of the ASPs now functioningwill
be functioning in 2004 as they are now. So, it's not a file-and-forget
situation by a long shot.
It's Hard to Predict
Will ASPs succeed or fail?
The correct answer is, "Probably." Nothing ever works out in real life
quite the way it was supposed to. (Remember how television was going to
raise the average intelligence of Americans and bring families together?)
The ASP model can work within certain parameters right now, as I have learned,
and it can supply important management software that would be otherwise
unavailable. There never have been simple answers to complex managerial
questions. There are, however, always better tools—and an ASP, used judiciously,
can be one of them.
General Information on
Online newsletters covering
this industry are available from http://www.win2000mag.com/update,
a weekly online newsletter from Windows2000 Magazine, and http://www.smartpartnermag.com
(look for the ASP link from the home page).
— Compatible with Palm operating systems
— Integrated office support, including customized domain naming
— Create-your-own database program for any sort of application; data can
be exchanged between spreadsheets and Bitlocker.
— Netledger online accounting/bookkeeping program; compatible with Quicken
— Receive or make payments between any two e-mail addresses, using a deposit
system involving either bank or credit card accounts.
— A Web-hosting service for libraries. Limited services available for free;most
seem to be connected to traditional library automation circulation systems
sold by this vendor.
— Online live meetings
R. Reenstjerna is catalog librarian for the Douglas County Library System
in Roseburg, Oregon. In addition to an M.L.S. from the University of Maryland,
he earned an M.Ad. (human resources) from Lynchburg College and an Ed.D.
from West Virginia University. He has worked in technical services and
reference for public, academic, and special libraries. Being a "geekosaur,"
he has used computers ranging from the era when he keypunched programs
onto cards to today, when he synchronizes his Handspring Visor PDA to his
PC. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.