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John Roberts: Web services and CRM, a marriage made by spin, part 2

In part two of this exclusive interview, Roberts describes why CRM and Web services aren't a perfect couple and why proprietary vendors probably won't change their models.

Web services is the Band-Aid that covers the weaknesses of proprietary customer relationship software (CRM), said John Roberts, CEO and co-founder of SugarCRM, in Cupertino, Calif. It's a "neat technology," good for many purposes, but it can't provide the interactivity or application integration that proprietary CRM products lack. In part one of our conversation with Roberts, he explained why 80% of CRM projects fail and how to reverse the trend. In part two, he describes why CRM and Web services aren't a perfect couple and why proprietary vendors probably won't change their models.

I've heard a lot about the marriage of Web services and CRM. Is this a good match?

John Roberts: Traditionally, software companies have hidden the code from everyone and built proprietary environments. In CRM, for example, Siebel created a huge proprietary application that was at its peak in 1995 and 1996.

As CRM matured, users said, 'We need to connect to it, to interact with it.' That's the nature of CRM; it's a human-interaction platform.

But, because of their hidden code, the only thing the proprietary CRM vendors could offer was Web services. 'You could interact with your salesforce via Web services.'

The powerful thing about CRM is that it's a foundation for building, customizing and using all sorts of applications internally. Web services, just editing XML files going back and forth, is not a good development environment for building and customizing CRM applications for enterprises.

So, this Web services push is proprietary vendors doing a good job of marketing a weakness as a strength.

Could you elaborate on Web services' weaknesses as a CRM development environment?

For more information

Read part 1 of the interview with John Roberts


See what's convincing SMBs to invest in open source CRM

Roberts: For one thing, editing XML files is a tedious process. For another, there are millions of PHP programmers around the world who want to be able to use GUI tools to customize a CRM app without writing any code. In an instant with PHP, you can drop in and customize every form in SugarCRM. You can't do that in a proprietary app with XML.

In the rental model, with Web services, you're completely locked by the API [application programming interface] the proprietary vendor supplies. You have to buy more of their products just to use this Web services environment, which really isn't that great in terms of an integration environment.

With open source code, you can customize software and do some really cool extensions and leverage existing PHP applications. You can't do that with proprietary software. You're stuck.

Do you expect any proprietary CRM vendors to move to an open source model?

Roberts: Maybe the proprietary software guys will adopt an open source strategy. However, it's difficult, if not impossible, to take a company founded and made profitable by a proprietary model and change it to a commercial open source model. The two models are so radically different. The company would have to reboot its entire revenue stream and focus on building a community. That takes time, effort and the community's trust.

Is wireless capability a must-have for CRM suites today?

Roberts: It is necessary now. There is a huge conversion to wireless happening now. As communication and wireless networks continue to get stronger in terms of their bandwidth throughput, it's only going to escalate.

Traditionally, to get wireless connectivity with a CRM application, you had to go with third-party proprietary wireless extensions that had proprietary wireless infrastructures.

Today, most users in the CRM world are addicted to their Blackberrys or Trios, and are using the Web browsers in those devices, which have gotten much better and faster.

We measured the form factors in Trios and Blackberrys, in terms of their screen resolutions and so on. They both support HTML browsers, so we wrote wireless versions of Sugar for those devices. It was easy to ship a wireless version of Sugar by focusing on the browsers and devices and not having to force customers into some proprietary wireless standard.

A wireless device user can go to our Web site today and type the URL and play with the app. It doesn't require any infrastructure to start using the app.

Where you see CRM going in terms of new technologies?

Roberts: I still think there's a lot of innovation needed to culminate in a better user experience. That's where open source will play a major role. On SugarForge, for instance, you get people from all over the world who are experimenting with extensions and advances.

Just yesterday, I read about a project that connected Sugar to Yahoo for maps. So, you're on your wireless device somewhere, and you can find out, based on your current location, where there are other nearby customers who you can visit. It's a great idea, and there are many more projects like that.

You're going to see a radical explosion of innovation. For example, VOIP [Voice over Internet Protocol], the future of telecomm and CRM are being used in major call centers today.

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