Back in 2008, in a post about mashups, I cited some articles in which several experts expressed their belief that emerging technologies would allow business users to create their own applications, while software developers would devote more of their time to creating foundational Web development platforms. One of the experts predicted it'd be at least a decade before business folks were routinely creating apps.
Fast forward to today. Development infrastructures created by the likes of Amazon, Salesforce.com and other providers of platform-as-a-service are shortening that time frame. Yesterday I interviewed Ariel Kelman, VP of product marketing for Salesforce's Force.com, who briefed me on a new product offering called the Visual Process Manager that will allow users to design a business process with a visual design tool and instantly run it in a cloud environment "in a way that is incredibly simple and fast."
The four primary features of Visual Process Manager:
- Process Designer, which includes an interface with a library of presentation components like forms, questions and choices, and logic components like task assignments, decision trees and approval processes. Developers can drag-and-drop these components to a visual process design diagram.
- Process Wizard Builder, which helps companies design wizards that walk users, step-by-step, through their business process.
- Process Simulator, which allows developers to simulate complex processes before they are deployed, to identify any bottlenecks or conflicts in process flows. The processes can be immediately revised, if necessary.
- Real-time Process Engine, which can run all of a company's processes and scales to meet the needs of any size business. The engine facilitates enforcement of busness rules.
The new tool is a natural evolution of cloud development, said Kelman. In 2006, when Salesforce introduced Force.com, companies used it primarily for highly transactional applications. Then in 2007, a user interface framework was added, which allowed companies to build apps with standard Web technologies like HTML and Flash. In 2008, Salesforce introduced Force.com Sites, which made it easier for customers to expand their development to public-facing apps. For instance, Starbucks uses Force.com to power its Pledge5 site, which allows folks to pledge volunteer time to their communities. A few months ago Salesforce announced Chatter, which promises to ease development of collaborative apps.
Kelman said many Salesforce clients were already creating business process management applications on the Force.com platform. The new tool, however, "takes a lot of code out of the process." I asked Kelman if a business user, even a relatively non-tech savvy one like me, could build her own app. His response:
What's a developer ? It's anyone that builds an app. Completely non-technical people are able to build fairly straightforward apps and professional developers can build any apps on our platform. [Visual Process Manager] raises the bar on what you can build as an app in our platform without writing a single line of code.
Cloud development platforms like Force.com have always promised to help companies speed deployment and cut costs, said Kelman, citing statistics from IDC, which found companies using Force.com for development could build apps five times faster and at half the cost of traditional development, on average. But in addition to those benefits, the cloud is about "making more applications accessible to more people," Kelman said.
In fact, Kelman noted, the lines between applications and processes are blurring. And he thinks that will narrow the gap between IT departments and their business users. He said:
With this new tool, the IT department becomes more closely intertwined with a company's business processes. It's no longer just some development factory that takes specs and produces apps.
Salesforce isn't the only company trying to capitalize on the idea of moving business process management to the cloud, of course. IT Business Edge's Mike Vizard wrote about a partnership between CSC and Cordys, which promises some of the same capabilities. We'll doubtless see more, thanks to the growing interest in BPM and especially BPM that includes collaborative elements.
Visual Process Manager is priced at $50-per-user a month and is available now.