In about a week, I’ll be presenting at FileMaker DevCon on two topics related to the Workplace Innovation Platform. As part of those talks I am going to be talking about Custom Application Networks. In this post, I’m going to introduce Custom Application Networks and talk a little bit about what makes the FileMaker Workplace Innovation Platform so good at building them.

Bridging the Gap

In FileMaker’s recently released white paper on the Workplace Innovation Platform, the authors list five reasons you should invest in a Workplace Innovation Platform; number two is: “Bridge the gap between appliance apps and enterprise systems.” If you look around you’ll see it isn’t just enterprise applications that need bridging—it’s the dozen SaaS applications that most business now use as well.

Companies today have a mishmash of apps and services that they try to string together into some kind of cohesive whole, but duplicate data exists in many apps. Information needs to move from one application to another with custom transformations unique to business processes, and somehow they need to extract valuable business intelligence.

Who designed this mess? How did we get here? Wouldn’t it be better just to build a big monolithic application so we could avoid the chaos?

It’s the Economy, Silly

Well, it’s the API Economy to be specific. As more and more applications and services get added to the network through APIs, they all get more powerful. They get cheaper to build and maintain, they get easier to sell, and they generate more revenue. This is a classic example of the network effect.

It didn’t start out this way. When the first SaaS apps where released 10 years ago, they weren’t very good, but they were affordable. I used to joke that SaaS applications were the fast food of the software industry. They were cheap, satisfied a craving, and were available everywhere, but if you lived on them they would kill you. That said, over time these apps improved substantially.

Just getting better wouldn’t have been enough fo them for them to transcend the fast food category—the internet as a whole got better too. Internet Explorer was killed off. JavaScript become the dominant programming language, and developers settled on REST or REST-like APIs with JSON as the payload. Suddenly these applications could talk to each other. Platforms like Zapier were born which focused solely on connecting SaaS applications.

Now we have applications that are improving at an ever-quickening pace, they can interoperate efficiently, are drop-dead simple to try out, and relatively inexpensive if you consider all the costs of building the functionality on your own. Add this up and you have an economic incentive so compelling that companies start using more and more of these apps without even really knowing that they are doing so. At first slowly, and then quickly, companies begin to assemble custom application networks.

Custom Application Networks and Innovation

Now, many companies have many SaaS applications that they rely on. They are maybe partially integrated using Zapier or other custom code. Each company has a different set of applications that are connected in different ways. The “Custom” part of the solution has moved partially out of the custom application and into the network layer. It is the unique collection of apps, connected in a unique way that defines a “Business System.” This a Custom Application Network.

Look closely at what this Custom Application Network does—it runs a business. If it isn’t working well, the business isn’t working well. If it’s too rigid, the business can’t adapt. If you can’t change, you can’t try new ideas. If you can’t try new ideas, you can’t innovate. Suddenly, the health of this Custom Application seems pretty important.

Custom Application Networks
Custom Application Networks mimic the organization of human brains and neural networks

Build vs Buy

As a brief aside, I want to make it clear that custom software development isn’t going away. We still need to build things that are unique for our businesses. There will be apps to build, dashboards to build, custom integrations to build, and APIs to build. The incredible opportunity is that now we get to build more of what really matters to our businesses—or for our clients—and less that doesn’t. Anything that is essential but provides no competitive advantage can be purchased and integrated. So the answer to the old question of “should we build it or buy it?” is “both.” You’ll buy and you’ll build, but you’ll just get to build more of what matters. Almost everything you do will be connecting in some way to a Custom Application Network.

Back to the Future

If you’ve been paying attention, you will note that there are some problems with this arrangement. The Custom Application Network was probably designed over time, and without a game plan. Data is spread across many applications, and the flow between the applications is not great. You can’t see the data you need to see when you need to see it. This feels remarkably like the beginning of my career.

Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s, building business software often meant translating paper-based systems into databases. Collecting and organizing everything, creating reports, crafting finds, and writing scripts to get these data to flow from form to form or table to table. Now we have a similar situation, but instead of data existing in a bunch of filing cabinets on paper or maybe excel spreadsheets, we have it in separate applications. Fundamentally the goal is the same: organize these data, get it to flow where it needs to be, make reports and charts, and design data in/out forms. How we do it is different, but the end goal is the same. Back then, we were creating databases that were shared over the LAN. Now, we are creating Custom Application Networks that might reach around the world.

Workplace Innovation Platform

Let’s consider the basic set of capabilities you need to keep your Custom Application Network going. Whatever tool you use, it will require the use of REST APIs to create custom data flows between SaaS applications. It will need to be able to create web, mobile, and desktop apps. It will need to have a database component. It will need to be easy to get started with, and powerful enough to build pro-level applications. It would be great if it offered escape hatches through a plugin API and integration with JavaScript. Where can we find such a tool?

If you accept the premise that healthy innovation in a business is tied to the business’s Custom Application Network, it’s really no surprise that a Workplace Innovation Platform tool like FileMaker would provide these capabilities. Business Innovation is managing, building and maintaining the Custom Application Network. Even if you are only building a small custom application for your company, it is almost certainly going to need to plug into the network at some point, and so your custom app will be improving the health of that network.

FileMaker has all of the capabilities I outlined above. I am not aware of any other tools out there that have the full stack that FileMaker has, making it the perfect platform for building part, or all, of your Custom Application Network.

It’s Not That Hard, but it is Different and it’s Getting Easier. Oh, and it’s Worth it.

Many of you are probably thinking, “Ok sure, but integration is not easy. The Custom Application Networks that you advocate are a sort of distributed database system and that is more complicated than building everything in one system.” This is true to a degree. It was certainly true in years past, but I don’t think it as true today. The tools for integration are getting better, and best practices and patterns are emerging that will help us reason about these problems.

Also, it is undeniably worth it to make the effort. Once you begin to build systems in this way, you will begin to feel how much more robust, more flexible, and less risky your system is.

The Opportunity

It’s hard to overstate the opportunity presented by the Custom Application Network. Every business of any size is creating one, whether they know it or not. If you’re a business owner, understanding your network will help you decide what to build and what to buy. If you’re a custom app developer, every company has technical challenges, which you have skills to solve. If you’re a vertical market developer, understanding how to fit your app into your customers’ custom application networks will help you decide what features to build and what to leave to the network.

The Geist in your Business Innovation Machine

At Geist Interactive, we have a methodology we use to work through the Custom Application Network’s opportunity. We call custom application networks that are built with intent “Business Innovation Machines,” for what I hope by now are obvious reasons. If you’re curious about this, and wonder how it might help you, please reach out. We’d love to be the Geist in your Business Innovation Machine.

More at DevCon

Custom Application Networks aren’t the only thing I’ll be covering at my two talks at DevCon, although it will make up a substantial part of my first talk. The other presentation will be about where I think we’re headed in the next few years. I hope to see you there.