The fall and rise of end-user computing

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In the beginning there was dBase II.

Yes, II. There was no dBase I, and shortly after dBaseIV there was 0, as superior products eclipsed this, the original end-user app dev tool.

Fast forward thirty years to the present and it appears the entire EUC (end-user computing) category is failing. This makes no sense.

No, it isn’t extinct yet. There is, for example, the venerable Microsoft Access, although anyone who thinks Microsoft is giving it much attention isn’t paying much attention. If Microsoft had any interest in the product, it long ago would have become a highly publicized Azure development environment.

At least it’s economical: $110 buys you a license.

There’s QuickBase. I know little about the product other than that from a features and functionality perspective it looks promising. And it’s cloud-based. But it costs a user-unfriendly $180 per client per year.

Also, an alarm bell: Intuit recently sold QuickBase off to a private equity firm. For the most part private equity firms buy companies, starve the P&L of investments, and flip the company before revenues crash.

Draw your own conclusions.

Apple’s FileMaker Pro is reportedly a strong product, as it should be for $330 per user license. There’s also a cloud version, priced at, as one reseller, amusingly puts it, “from $1.63/day.” Let’s see … carry the 1 … that’s $595 per year, per user. I thought the cloud was supposed to be cheap.

These are three of the more prominent EUC products. Like I say, this makes no sense, given what we’re hearing from the trend-meisters: (1) Everything is moving to the cloud; and (2) IT is going the way of the dodo: Infrastructure is leaving the data center in favor of the cloud, while app dev is leaving the IT organization to become shadow IT, embedded in the business and out of control.

If shadow IT in the cloud is supposed to be a Next Big Thing, why aren’t the big cloud players — in particular Microsoft, Amazon, and Google — fielding products to cash in on the trend?

What’s particularly strange about this situation is that we are, for the first time, in a position to field application development environments that truly could make business managers independent of IT — that could take care of just about every detail of application design.

It’s now technologically possible to create:

  • Wizards that provide a dialog that results in a normalized data design (I’m old-fashioned) — one that makes use of IT’s APIs to provide meaningful integration and avoid the creation of duplicate data fields.
  • Automated form generation for PCs, tablet, and smartphones that flow naturally from the data design.
  • Visual workflow design tools, so systems can let users know there are forms to be opened and work to be done.

IT won’t be irrelevant in this new shadow/cloud universe we’re imagineering. But it probably does need to recognize the need to get out of the app dev business and into the integration business.

So far, this is just me grousing about the sorry state of the world — less an occupational hazard than a chronological one, but a hazard nonetheless.

What’s in it for you as an IT leader?

First and foremost, take integration seriously. It’s mostly a matter of solving a problem once instead of over and over again.

The key: Especially for IT shops that mostly license COTS and SaaS software and integrate it rather than building their own, build an architecture that makes systems of record and sources of truth separate and distinct.

Systems of record are maintained and managed by IT, which keeps track of which system is the central repository of what information and which systems have to be kept synchronized to the central repository.

Sources of truth are SOAP or REST-based APIs. When shadow IT efforts … and for that matter, formal IT efforts … need to retrieve or update information from the company’s official databases, they consult the sources of truth, not the underlying systems of record.

Next: if you want to do everyone a favor and not force them to make Excel perform unnatural acts, settle on a suitable end-user computing tool in spite of the state of the market, connect it to your APIs, and actively promote its use, both inside and outside IT.

You’ll be amazed at just how much more automation your company achieves, and how much more satisfactory it is as well.

Comments (10)

  • I know many of us are getting on in years, but I have yet to see an EUC that can rival Visual FoxPro. It’s kept me busy for 30 years and it’s more alive than you might think – in fact, it’s used as a teaching language in computer science curriculums of many Eastern European universities. It’s also doing journeyman work throughout corporate America in the form of thousands of small departmental apps, and in small business with products like AccountMate and Alere accounting software. It gets no respect but it still gets the job done.

  • You fail to mention excel with power query or as it morphed into just a query under Office365. This is a real big deal.
    MS let the sqlserver team write a data add in for excel and things got interesting.

  • Yes, where IS the Access killer? Surely the need for small, data-based custom apps is still there, but what product is fast (and reliable) enough and priced sanely? No doubt a serious drag on national productivity is the stupifying number of hours wasted on spreadsheets…. But it shouldn’t take a man-year of time to do relatively simple end-user database apps.

  • Speaking as an shadow IT end-user, there is a nontrivial effort to learn new tools, and Excel was the most transportable – if IT could give me an Excel file, I could take it from there…

  • Well said Bob. I was just reading an article this morning that talked about how IT is being pressure to move their data centers to the cloud and it was a forgone conclusion is would happen. My response. Huh?

    It seems that IT marketing is always in search of the next big thing. Solutions that lack problems (and at time economics).

    Those older tools you talked about (throw in Paradox and 4th Dimension) were powerful, especially for the small guys. Languages like PowerBuilder and Visual Basic could build simple and productive business applications.

    Now we are throwing a 100lb hammer at a pin to build business applications with .NET or Java and then told to add the complexity of the cloud (yes I dared say complexity). Running an efficient data center isn’t rocket science and costs are quite reasonable.

    This past year I have seen two SaaS projects run seriously amuck sadly. SaaS sounds great but it’s just another integration complicated by trying to move data around – you never know what Cloud or data center you need to integrate to.

    Nothing wrong with progress. But as you point out, the Cloud isn’t cheaper, rather it’s a way to be charged each day for services (yes – I’m looking at you Adobe).

    P.S. Happy Thanksgiving!

  • There once was a brilliant tool for end-user applications — Lotus Notes. Then IBM got the notion they could sell the development tools separately. And now the product is mostly gone (probably unrelated to how they sold the development tools).

    • What do you think of SharePoint as its successor? I haven’t dug deeply into its capabilities; it seems to be able to do database-type stuff, so long as the data design isn’t too complicated and as long as IT is willing to give you developer access.

      • Wow sharepoint is so stupid complicated. I’ve never been able to realize the potential. Since I’m no longer IT there’s no training available and when there is they don’t think supervisors need it. Then there’s that whole access to be able to build things. I spend hours every week pulling data manually feeding my own access database then pulling it to excel to make reports. There’s limited time and never enough to make things work well. Our IT management was recently replaced by an outside company we bought. While getting rid of people that stood in the way of access to MY data is good, communication has gone from poor to worse and so no real progress is made. In the beginning we had simple products like Nutshell (became FileMaker Pro but more complex), so yea for excel cause my only other tool is paper.

  • I got the impression that Access and other EUC’s are left to languish because Microsoft and others are trying to re-create that sort of easy development platform for internet apps.

    I know the demand for internet apps is much higher than for local network ones like Access can provide.

    What I don’t know is the status of end-user tools and development platforms for internet apps. I know there’s a variety of software applications that claim to make publishing to the web a lot easier, but for true input-applications I don’t know.

    Also, do you think that local-network apps are still in high demand vs internet-enabled ones? That management wants all internet is my experience, but I’m just one perspective.

    • Last things first: For the types of application and user bases for the the applications we’re talking about, I don’t think anyone cares in the slightest whether the platform is the cloud or local storage. They just want an easy to create, easy to deploy system with an easy to share database.

      Dev environments: As I mentioned in the article, QuickBase and FileMaker Cloud are two examples of cloud-based EUC app dev platforms. But they’re sufficiently expensive to be a major barrier to widespread adoption.

      My view, at least.

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