Integrating customer relationship management software is difficult at best. So why bother? Silicon Valley start-up Octopus Software will launch a system this week that allows I-managers to put the power of a corporations disparate applications and the Internet in the hands of each user.
Octopus creates what it calls Meta Applications, software loaded onto a companys server and a users computer. They are designed to enable nontechnical business users to create customized views of specific business information that helps them do their jobs.
For years, a growing concern among some businesses is that few workers are actually using the valuable data stored in CRM databases because its just too difficult to access, especially by employees who lack extensive technical training. Octopus and its competitors want to make it much easier to pluck needed information from such systems.
The initial launch of Meta Applications contains proprietary links to Siebel 2000 for CRM, SAP for Enterprise Resource Planning applications, Microsoft Exchange for messaging tools and E.piphany for data marts. Octopus plans to add more attachments in the near future.
Octopus has partnered with online content providers, including Hoovers and MarketWatch for financial information, and sites such as Business Wire and CNet Networks for news.
"Were turning complex information into granular elements," explained Stephen Douty, president and CEO of Octopus. "Its a front-end packaged version of enterprise application integration."
Douty earlier helped develop marketing for Hotmail, which was later sold to Microsoft. Marc Andreessen, of Netscape and Loudcloud fame, is on the Octopus board.
The market for Meta Applications, which are really self-service portals for business users, is hotly contested. Pioneers of the space and Octopus competitors include Epicentric, Plumtree Software and Viador. Each has a system whereby the user can choose the services needed, customize the interface and see it all on the desktop through a browser.
Usually requiring a small software download, the products also allow managers to set up role-based interfaces specific to each users job so a customer service representative gets one view, while a salesperson gets another. Octopus allows companies to set up views for specific customers so they can take a more interactive role in business decisions.
Big software players, namely IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and the Sun-Netscape Alliance — a joint venture between Sun Microsystems and Netscape — have been working on similar platforms. SAP recently acquired TopTier Software to spin off a new division called SAP Portals to design a similar interface.
Unlike the software players, Octopus, Plumtree and their rivals are independent, with no legacy software to support or defend when it comes time to integrate competing software.
"Weve been able to deal with so many customers and integrate with so many applications and been at it so long that it gives us a great advantage," said Glenn Kelman, co-founder and vice president of marketing at Plumtree, which shipped its first portal product more than three years ago.
"Were going to combine resources regardless of where they came from because youre going to be able to serve your users better," he said.
These interfaces could simply replace the more cumbersome interfaces of old CRM apps, said Bob Zurek, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. "The big question is, does this become the substitute for the legacy interfaces for the CRM systems out there," Zurek said. "As more and more CRM companies expose Web service interfaces, this could be a good environment for assembling the user interface elements, while also integrating with Web services."
Plumtree has marketed successfully to department stores, most recently Kmart. While the initial rollout will be for Kmarts 250,000 sales associates, the long-term goal is to extend the portal use to cash registers.
"The fraud in IT [information technology] has been the systems weve been selling for the last 20 years are dramatically underused," Kelman said. "Most of the people that work as retail clerks at Kmart or factory workers havent been affected by many of the technologies that have been deployed." The next step for software, he said, is to take the data and resources that have been building up and make cohesive use of them.
Another benefit of these role-based portals, as Douty at Octopus noted, is that they can be used on various devices. With only a Web browser on the client end, users could access the portal from anywhere, such as handheld computers and wireless phones.
Wireless CRM has been a hot topic in IT, Douty said, but its still pretty far from reality. "We have the systems and software, but it hasnt become mission-critical yet — not that many people are asking for it," he said. "The infrastructure just isnt there yet."