So long as business applications are user-friendly and do the job, users shouldn’t need to care about the bits and bytes, says Nick Thompson, Director of DCSL Software.

Whether you’re at the helm of your company or are a time-pressed employee trying to get your job done, the last thing you want is to be slowed down by fiddly software that seems to want to force you into doing something unnatural. So why is it then that so many businesses are still held back by the software that was supposed to make their work easier?

Perhaps they’re bogged down by an unwieldy spreadsheet-based customer contact system, or something they cobbled together using Microsoft Access, which worked fine when the business was small, but has now grown into something of a monster.

Or perhaps they have ended up with a ‘feature-rich’ shrink-wrapped package that seems to do everything apart from the one thing they really need…

Browser power

Fortunately, business users who might otherwise have lived with this situation indefinitely are now waking up to the growing contrast between what they can achieve with their computers in their personal lives, and what they’re able to do at work.

Whether they’re at home, in the office, in a taxi, or away on holiday, there are many sophisticated things the consumer can do, without complex software, and without having to use the same PC. The key to all of this is the familiar Web browser, which is now at the centre of most things that a consumer may want to do with a computer—whether it’s buying a DVD, booking a train, managing their email or sharing photos with someone.

Yet, try achieving something similarly flexible with their work files and customer data, and the contrast soon becomes abundantly clear. Where simplicity exists for the consumer in their personal life, it is likely that complexity clouds their working day. This is particularly frustrating given that, unless you’re an IT business, the inner workings of the technology will be irrelevant to you. You just want to get the work done.

Making the switch

Yet how easy is it for your business to get from where it is today, to this shiny new future, where the complexities of IT are masked and managed behind a simple, user-friendly browser—the kind of experience Google and Amazon users have come to take for granted?

Happily, it is much, much easier than most people realise. The breakthrough of the browser, and all of the cutting-edge technologies that work behind this, means that flexible, customised applications are cheaper and easier to come by than ever before.

Whether you want to transfer the wealth of information you’ve already laboriously typed into spreadsheets, or start again from scratch, it is possible for a small or medium-sized business to have a new, customised business application up and running within just four to six weeks—maybe less?and at a cost of just a few thousand pounds. And that’s just to do the job the old software was doing before—for example, capturing, updating and searching customer information or sales records.

By modernising the software, hosting it centrally (somewhere where it’s safe, backed up, and always available), organisations soon find that they are able to do things they couldn’t do before, such as access all of their files and data from just about anywhere their users might be, using whatever device is at their disposal. Their tools will probably be more flexible and dynamic too, enabling even the most IT-illiterate user—or indeed, customer—to search authorised records or generate easily-digestible reports on the fly.

Freedom from old ways of working

For the small or mid-sized business, this opens up some exciting possibilities. If their customer information/appointment system/sales records are now consolidated and stored centrally somewhere, they could consider employing people based on skills, rather than location or family commitments.

They could reduce office space. They could synchronise information more easily, avoiding duplication and the risk of different versions of content being out of date. Retailers could blend in-store and online systems to produce live stock and sales information.

Secure, role-differentiated information access could be extended to different groups of employees?and even to customers, so that they can serve themselves when they want a status update on their account or transaction (just as online banking or courier customers can do already today).

In a browser-based, intelligent, information-ready environment like this, much more can happen too. Rules and workflow can be brought into play, so that automatic notifications are triggered, warning users that an action is overdue, a bill hasn’t been paid, or an appointment has been missed.

A user-friendly utility

Team managers, accountants, finance directors, clinicians, suppliers and customers?they don’t want to know how the information comes to them. They just want to be able to access it, understand it, trust it and act on it – quickly and efficiently.

An up-to-date, web-savvy software company should be able to make all of that happen, with minimal fuss or delay, regardless of the basic nature of the systems already in use. If they are doing their job properly, the biggest part of the project will be understanding how your business works and what it needs to be able to do. Making it happen is the easy part.

This is what Google, perhaps the king of browser-based application access, has understood. This is the way software is going. So long as it’s user-friendly and does the job, who cares about the bits and bytes?