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After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

It's no secret that I'm a science fiction fan. I've been reading the stuff since I was six years old and, although I don't get to read much of it these days, (or much of any other kind of fiction for that matter,) reading a well-written sf novel is still one of my favorite leisure activities.

If you've followed my online novel, "A Season in Methven", it might surprise you to learn that I'm nowhere near as much a fan of fantasy. After all, my little offering is permeated with what even the narrator calls "magic".

The difference between the two forms is significant. In fantasy, anything goes. Events, powers, plot turns -- none of them need be believable in any scientific or technical sense. In true science fiction, however, the Universe is expected to behave exactly as it is thus far known to behave and events must proceed from their antecedents in credible fashion, strictly in accordance with the known laws of physics.

An author of what's called "hard" science fiction may generally make one and only one speculative leap in crafting the world in which his tale will take place -- a faster-than-light drive, say, or the development of immortality or time travel -- and the story he tells is often based on consequences that arise from that conjecture.

That's why my Methven story is set in a parallel universe. That permits me to base the presence of magic on a science-fictiony premise: that the "probability gradient" in the Methven universe is much steeper than that of ours. From that postulation -- that in the world of Methven, statistically improbable events occur routinely -- I've built an environment where most higher life forms have evolved or adapted to take advantage of that condition.

It's a case of my imposing science fiction values on the fantasy form, and, as the author, I'm free to do that, because Methven exists only in my imagination. In everyday life, however, we're all pretty much obliged to follow the real world's rules -- such as the laws of economics.

That's what bugs me about so much of the anti-gravity Internet economy. It's not based on supply and demand. It's based on wishful thinking.

'Way too many dotcom business plans are predicated on what I call the Field of Dreams model: "If you build it, they will come." And there is no group that's guiltier of that sin than the folks that call themselves ASPs.

The Boys in the Band

First of all, I'm not sure what the hell an "Application Service Provider" even is: a firm that provides outsourced administrative services, a glorified systems integrator, an independent software vendor or a troglodyte venture that still thinks there's a future for Internet-based thin computers in a business environment? Or are the real ASPs strictly into content hosting? I can't tell from stories in the trade press and the ASP wannabes can't seem to agree on a common definition themselves.

Most administrative functions -- such as accounting or human resources or inventory management -- involve highly confidential information. Regardless of how robust a server's security might be, exposing that information to the Net is risky. Even a VPN isn't foolproof -- a hacker who makes it far enough into your system can plant a sniffer to capture packets before they're encoded, or just download your data directly. Beyond that, a lot of businesses also have heavy investments in their existing HR or inventory control systems. Getting them to switch could be non-trivially difficult, even without the security angle.

Systems integration is a difficult way to make a living, with a long sales cycle and big, fierce competitors. Like IBM and EDS and the Big Six, for instance. It's not for the faint of heart and it generally requires developing a much closer relationship with the client than can be achieved via the Net -- to understand the client's needs, you have to physically spend a good deal of time studying how she conducts her business. You can't automate that, either. It takes a combination of business and technical skills with diplomacy and salesmanship that's pretty darned rare -- and pretty darned costly, as rare things often are.

For my money, an ISV is an ISV. Calling yourself an ASP only creates the suspicion that you don't really understand what business you're in. If you sell your own software for a living -- regardless of what kind of software it is -- you're an ISV, not an ASP.

Unless you're Microsoft, that is. Then you won't be an ISV until the appeals process is finished.

And don't get me started about thin computing again. It has its niches -- in public kiosks and as a replacement for 3270 terminals in host-centric applications, for instance -- but it will never become the dominant paradigm. Ubiquitous thin was never going to be anything more than Larry Ellison's wet dream. (Oracle Corporation's Ellison is an old mainframer and thin is a host-centric computing model, so it's not surprising that he champions it. You pretty much go with what you know, after all.)

The problem is that it's a discredited model. Just look around you: the Net is proof that distributed intelligence is where it's really at. And thin is just too dependent on connectivity. Lose your connection to the network and you're hosed -- you can access neither your data nor your applications.

There's also the bandwidth issue. Universally available broadband is still years away and graphical thin clients eat bandwidth like potato chips.

And even newbies demand what David Ditzel of Transmeta Corp. calls "the full Internet experience" -- an experience that demands more local horsepower than thin clients can deliver without losing their price advantage.

Thin is a poor, tired joke and it needs to go away.

That leaves content hosting -- and, IMnsHO, hosting is hosting. Whether you host content on your own servers or you provide facilities for your customer's servers, you're still not an ASP in my book. You're a hosting facility, and you're probably an ISP, as well. You may even provide consulting and engineering services to your customers -- but that still doesn't make you an ASP.

The Man Who Never Was

So, what is this mythical beast, the fabled ASP, anyway?

I think it's nothing more than a nonce term that was coined by the trade press and subsequently seized upon by dotcom marketeers with no discernable business plan and a yen to cash in on the runaway IPO market before the whole thing blows away like a trailer park in a tornado. It's an acronym in search of a meaning -- the verbal equivalent of an empty suit.

In fact, the whole concept of an ASP is such a total con that, in an April 24 cover story from Computer Reseller News, GartnerGroup Inc.'s research director, Rita Terdiman, is quoted as saying of those who identify themselves as ASPs, "Everybody is trying anything and everything, and if it works, great. If not, then they throw it out and try something else."

Now, I'm no believer in the special powers of firms like the Gartner kids. I understand just how hard it is to design a good survey -- and how easy it is to design a bad one -- and I know from experience that people lie on those things all the time. But they do get their phone calls returned and they're smart enough to ask useful questions, so, in this case, I think Terdiman's comment is right on the money.

Unfortunately, what she sees as an inchoate marketplace in the process of defining itself, I see as so much wishful thinking supported entirely by hot air.

And I don't like it.

I communicate for a living. I believe that doing so clearly and unambiguously is important -- it's certainly important to me. I feel strongly that the deliberate proliferation of nonsense by lazy members of the computer trade press and marketing nitwits is antithetical to the cause of clarity.

If you take my advice, you'll stay off this particular bandwagon. It's a parade without a theme -- aside from sheer cupidity, that is -- and I'll bet my standard two bits that you won't much like the company in which you find yourself.

If you don't know EXACTLY what you do for a living, you had damned well better find out, and quickly. The venture capital good times won't last forever -- sooner or later, interest rates will head back up into double digits and all that lovely money is going to flow out of stocks and into bonds. Once the music stops, things will get very ugly, very fast for anyone who's still trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up.

Call it the Science Fiction Principle: when crafting a business plan, make one and only one speculative leap. Anchor every other aspect of your plan as solidly as possible to reality -- and then ask yourself, "Does this really make financial sense?"

If not, do yourself -- and everyone else -- a favor. Let it stay a fantasy.

(Copyright© 2000 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)