Podio Released. Does the social work platform herald the beginning-of-the-end of desktops?

After two years in development, the latest workplace collaboration service, Podio, was stood up to be counted at the end of March. Podio is focused on improving execution and collaboration for  business processes, knowledge and projects. With Podio, business teams can define their own customizable work spaces: without external programming support.

Why is this important? There is much discussion on improving desktop management: and typically the driver is “to reduce cost”. This involves looking to ease deployment; introduce user personalisation and rights control; considering application virtualisation. The simple fact is, if you want to control your desktop management costs, you introduce better management: you make an unmanaged device, a managed one. However, when tightly defining a desktop workspace and controlling how it is configured (to reduce costs) it often prevents users from accessing their data in ways that they need. IT can become a barrier, not an enabler.

Users don’t care about desktop management issues. Users want to quickly define what it is that they need; do it, quickly, and get on with their job. Quickly.

Podio offers a service that can be readily set-up, customised and deployed: with little IT knowledge – or IT service interaction.  You create a workspace, you add applications to that workspace, you invite members of your team (regardless of the fact that your team may extend beyond your organisation) and you start working.

When you see how the Podio platform delivers, it offers an interesting vision for the future of desktop services. Podio is more than simply another on-line collaboration service, more than a business orientated “Facebook”. Podio has some unique attributes in the way it allows users control. Its model for selection and deployment is an intriguing goal.

Indeed, if there were more Software as a Service (SaaS) offerings such as Podio available, would they negate the need for Desktop as a Service (DaaS)?

Podio – What it is

Podio’s focus is to provide a platform for small/medium sized organisations to get up and running with standard business function applications offered from Podio’s own App Store. You are also allowed to combine and link your chosen applications together in a package to create information repositories managed with work-flows. For example, its possible to link applications for meetings, team blog, and milestones and create an Application Package that is focused on Project Management. The key here is, a user hasn’t had to find and install applications, be overly concerned about the underlying OS, or ensure everyone is saving in the same format, and wait for IT to install agents and brokers. From “have nothing” to “collaboration environment” can take not days, not hours – minutes.

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The user is not concerned here with getting IT to deliver and organise services; they can focus on getting their job done. More importantly, they have the facility to create their own services.

For the science part, Podio is built on Amazon cloud services. It provides an application programming interface (API) to allow data to flow in/out of the Podio workspaces if that is required. Once signed up, Podio members can invite other people (not necessarily in the same organisation) to collaborate on one or more work spaces within the web-based environment. As long as they’ve an Internet connection and are able to use SSL, they’re good to go.

What makes Podio Different?

A collaborative workspace isn’t new. Services such as Box.Net, Huddle and Yammer all provide similar core functionality – mail,contacts, calendars, tasks and shared file storage. What makes Podio stand out, is the Podio App Store.

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The Podio App Store

The platform allows integration and aggregation with other webservices such as Google Alerts, Twitter, RSS and Zendesk for example, but not every external application there is no interaction as yet with Salesforce.com for example, or a company’s internal financial or HR application. Instead, it is a platform that is first and foremost for users, or user organizations, to develop workspaces with applications that they need to complete their own tasks or project.

The principle behind Podio is that all your activities tasks, from expense reports to hiring, happen within a Podio App Store App. At the moment Podio offer over 200 applications, with new Apps being created by the development teams based in Copenhagen and San Francisco based on customer feedback. What is perhaps even more powerful, is that users are allowed to create and share their own Apps using the App Builder. A “scientific team” App, for example, was created by (funnily enough) a science team who were using Podio to collaborate on science experiments.

Podio’s App Store allows users to combine specialized and flexible work Apps with core messaging, tasks, reporting, work-flow and contact management. It looks to eliminate scattered, disorganized work routines, and replace multiple products from different companies with a single environment and a single login.

Where Can it Go?

Obviously, people at Podio would likely want the answer to be “..to be an all powerful and popular and make them a fortune”. Since its inception is approaching subscriptions from over 18,000 organisations with thousands of new sign-ups a week.

While there is no opportunity as yet to offer the service as an ‘internal cloud application’ there are opportunities for third parties to  to wrap the Podio service into a managed solution by becoming a Podio Activator; who would be focused at the implementation and customisation processes.

The most obvious opportunity will be the App Store model. It will be interesting to see how it develops to generate additional Apps and thus additional services,in turn generating more interest and more income. Podio are committed to providing an increasing range of Apps for free: and there is of course potential App development and integration services. Podio are committed to keeping the Apps free, but there is an opportunity for developers to build their own web services and then create a free Podio App to deliver that service into the Podio platform.

The service has only just  launched – there is likely time yet for additional features to be introduced.

How Could it Possibly go Wrong?

There are a great number of applications available – but core content creation services (create a presentation, or a brochure, or a report) aren’t available. While email is present, it is focused on messaging within the Podio Service rather than a generic email client. You can import contact information, but not export it: you can sync a calendar via iCal but you may find it cumbersome to have an additional calendaring service if you’ve one already.

As we mentioned, “the user is not concerned here with getting IT to deliver and organise services; they can focus on getting their job done”. But the key word in “software as a service” is the word “service”. Podio are open about their terms and conditions, which are broadly in-line with similar platforms, but it is interesting to note:

  • The service is free for up to 10 users, but beyond that you’d need to move to a Premium account with a per user charge beyond 15 users. If, once you’ve got your account, you don’t pay your money you lose access to your data. Don’t pay for 30 days, and you could lose the data altogether.
  • No warranties of any kind, regarding any specific availability or time of access are granted: Podio have built a robust environment on a  scalable infrastructure from a reliable supplier, but there are no guarantees that the service is always available.
  • Podio gives no warranties with respect to recovering or restoring any lost Customer data: the users are ultimately responsible for backing up their own data. You can export information to Excel and CSV file format in both the free and premium versions, with premium accounts having a
  • Although the data is held on a secure location; there is no guarantee made (at the time of writing), to which country that data is held.

As with other similar “cloud services”; Podio is best utilised for a focused team starting afresh. There is a facility import data using the Podio APIs but importing legacy data can be cumbersome, and moving away from the service equally problematic.

The Pain of IT is not the Pain of Users

Yet, the ease of set-up is incredibly compelling. Not just for SMB market; larger organisational departments may see Podio services as method of quickly providing new functions due to the ease of use, clarity and low cost.

Podio not only offers a rich, wide service (within understandable caveats) it also offers a view of what cloud computing will mean to you desktop/workspace provision: a workspace of the future being offered today. For teams in many organisations the service will solve a issue of getting a solution in place to support business needs quickly. It also poses some fundamental questions, detail that is normally only considered by the devil, IT. Where is the data? How is being protected against corruption, who has access to it and what is the risk to the business of loss of the service and/or the data.

As we’ve mentioned Podio offers its terms and conditions for inspection, but have the implications been fully understood by user? The flip side of this is, if gaining access is perceived as ‘easier’, ‘better’ and ‘cheaper’ than what can be provided by IT services, do the users care? It is almost impossible to prevent users making use of such services: if IT want to ensure data is not lost, access is controlled the goal needs to be to offer similar services, with similar ease of use. Don’t ban, offer better.

Beginning of the end of desktops?

Obviously you’ve got to host the browser on “something”. But, consider that the browser is no longer dependent on a traditional Desktop+Operating System. A browser could be supported on a minimal device – be it a desktop/laptop “thing”, a smartphone, a tablet, your games console, your TV.. As we’ve mentioned HP devices will be shipping with WebOS embedded. If you’ve means of browsing the  Internet and all the services and user settings are encapsulated in a service like Podio, why bother with traditional applications and a traditional OS to have to patch, manage and maintain? You could for example, deploy a  Desktop-as-a-Service solution such as Desktone.. add in a service like Podio .. your infrastructure costs and commitments so far have been an internet pipe and possibly a wireless access point. Feasibly, you don’t even need an office.

It is interesting that a number of desktop virtualization vendors provide functions for organisations to offer a similar style of service on your existing infrastructure. Citrix attempted to offer an iTunes experience which they called ‘Dazzle’ which later morphed into “Citix Receiver”: The goal being to have a “universal software client” that lets end-users access both local and Web-based applications from various types of client devices using a single sign-on.  Unidesk enable similar functionality for VMware View, Panologic, Citrix XenDesktop and Microsoft RDS by enabling application delivery into a standard desktop environment. Going beyond desktop virtualisation, CentrixSoftware have their Workspace Universal offering, VisionApp have Workspace Management – platforms that can allow you to present your organisation’s applications in a single web based interface so that users can find, request and access applications easily: combing web based applications with local and virtualised applications and desktops. This of course requires that you have such functions available. It is also useful to consider, access to Podio could be incorporated into these solutions.

While Podio offers a compelling solution for a number of use-cases it is not going to be a viable complete desktop replacement in its current form. There is still a need for desktop services: even if it is as a core provision for the browser and ‘traditional’ productivity apps; document creation, spreadsheets, e-mail. However, the rise of services that allow team collaboration via the web is likely going to drive the demand for quicker application deployment, for the provision of workspaces not only on a desktop and not only for your organisations users. In 2009 when Dazzle was initially announced, I queried the need to pick individual discrete apps from an application store where those apps have to be virtualised in some way. Such an offering is not really a “user choice” per se. What is interesting about Podio is that it offers users with the ability not only to install, but to create their own applications.

Podio is likely a game changing environment for collaboration environments, but the rise of such services is likely to have a far wider impact in providing desktop services.