A family member (who owns a small business) recently asked me about purchasing a new software program. The software vendor apparently offers the ability to use the software over the internet instead of the traditional option of purchasing, installing, and maintaining the individual licenses. All this led to the question “What exactly is Software as a Service?” Well…
Software as a Service (Saas) is different from traditional software in that it doesn’t get installed onto your personal computer. Installing software, as I explain in the lesson “Adding Capabilities” in The Ultimate PC Primer, is like a contractor coming to your house to add something. The completed addition resides with you, expanding the features of your home. Likewise, traditional software must be placed into your personal computer to grant you new capabilities. But SaaS is different. It allows you to make use of software that resides somewhere else, though you can use (or control) it “remotely” from your computer. Here’s a short story and analogy to illustrate…
I remember the day I came downstairs early in the morning and found my 3-year old watching a DVD movie in our living room. Knowing the disc had been left in the player the previous day, he had figured out how to push the DVD player’s power button, followed by the play button (in addition to the TV power button, of course). In a few more days, he figured how to change discs. I wasn’t sure I liked him knowing how to play DVDs on his own. After all, nearby were all my movies, and I didn’t think my 3 year-old needed to be watching The Hunt for Red October or something similar. The obvious solution? Relocate my movie collection. But let’s suppose (to help set up the analogy) I took a slightly wackier approach instead — relocating the DVD player.
Imagine that I establish an arrangement with my neighbor whose home I can see from my living room window. I move my DVD player to his house, setting it in his window (facing my house) so I can still control it with the remote control. I run the video signal cable — the cable that connects the TV and DVD player, bringing the pictures and sound from the player to my screen — from the player at his house, across our backyards, and connect it to my television. In this arrangement, despite the source of my movie being located elsewhere, the experience of watching a DVD program would be no different from before… with one exception: I must operate the player by remote control. In all other ways, though the device providing the functionality resides elsewhere, I would still experience the content on my own TV screen in my home. The big difference: I remotely operate the device providing the content.
This is how Software as a Service works as well. It provides you with software that you consume and control remotely over the internet, from your computer. And since the software is being provided as a service from the vendor’s location, your data — the data you would ordinarily store on your own computer to use with that program — is located at the vendor’s site as well. There are some benefits to this arrangement. The company maintains and promises to safeguard and backup your information, and they’re usually well equipped to do so considering they provide their service to many. Also, they essentially maintain the software for you. It’s their software anyway. They made it, so they keep it current. In this arrangement, you don’t shoulder the burden of keeping versions up to date or troubleshooting compatibility issues.
What’s the catch? With the software residing elsewhere, you must have agreement with the vendor to use it — a subscription — just as you would subscribe to cable television, electricity, or telephone service. It’s an on-going regular fee (or annual contract) rather than a once-and-done purchase and installation.
For those who have always used their personal computer solely with traditional software, SaaS is a very different way of computing that will require some adjustment. But with internet connection speeds increasing, SaaS and subscription-based software will be continuing to grow in popularity. In fact, I think a day will come when the majority of our software will become a service.