What happens when applications development meets crowdsourcing?

by Dave Hannon

December 22, 2010

Dave Hannon

There’s a growing movement among software developers away from top-secret R&D facilities towards much more open development “labs” in which software developers make not-yet-fully formed applications or products available to the general public for review and comment.

It’s crowdsourcing of software development and it would have been unthinkable a decade ago, when applications development was much more internally focused and downright secretive. I can recall friends who worked at software companies telling me they had no idea what went on in development because it was all very cloak and dagger.

But today, thanks to trends in social media and mobile apps (and the movie “The Social Network?”), software companies are realizing some of their most innovative ideas and product improvements may come from outside their four walls – way outside their four walls. I’m not talking about partnering with academic institutions or high-level think tanks for input — I’m talking anyone and everyone. True crowdsourcing.

What’s the benefit? By putting certain products up for general review before full release, companies are getting a user perspective before they’ve progressed too far down a given path that users might not be headed down (does Windows Vista come to mind?). And note, I said “certain products” because most companies aren’t showing all their cards. But, for example, when it comes to mobile and lighter front end a pps aimed at consumers, there are definite advantages to getting broader feedback from a variety of sources outside the R&D bunker where the average “user” has a Ph.D.

Intuit Labs is one of the best examples of this idea in practice. They’ve set up a very clear web site here, very inviting with clear explanation of what you can do. It’s not targeted at set of invited developers or marketers, but rather it’s open to…well anyone.

The site says: “Come on in! Check out the next generation of small business, personal finance, mobile and tax apps. Try them, play with them, then let us know what’s ready for prime time and what still needs a little work.” And not surprisingly they’re leveraging social media tools like Facebook and Twitter (@intuitlabs).

Autodesk Labs is another company that has taken a crowd-sourcing approach, posting technology previews and allowing anyone to download software for testing and provide feedback.

Google Labs might be the most well-known (it’s Google, so everything it does is well known), but is putting out almost too much product for my tastes. Again, it’s a welcoming and inviting web site but there’s just SO MUCH going on here, it’s intimidating (as in, “if I start playing with these things, I could lose a full day here if I’m not careful”).

Even NASA has taken a step toward crowdsourcing with the release of its NASA Tournament Lab in October, although as you m ight expect, it’s targeted at high-end developers and leverages a partnership with the highest of higher educational institutions.

Other companies have not yet opened up their R&D to the world, but invite people to apply to become involved in their testing programs (Adobe Labs is an example). It’s a step away from the top-secret R&D world, but a far cry from posting products in development for open critique.

Of course, there is some risk to putting products out for review prior to release, the most obvious being your competitors can get a jump on your new releases earlier. But the benefits of the crowd seem to outweigh the risks, at least according to those companies pursuing the strategy.

For its part, SAP has some initiatives in place and in development that show it is taking some steps in this direction, also, but given its end customers tend to be business users, it’s not likely SAP would ever put its software out to the general public for consumption prior to release. (Unless, it gets into more consumer-facing apps. Which it might. Next year. Maybe.)

If you haven’t seen the SAP Idea Place, a section of its SAP Community Network, it’s worth a look. SAP also has its SAP Ramp-Up program, where current SAP customers can apply to be early adopters of products before their general release. Again, it’s not for the general public, but then again, the general public wouldn’t have much feedback on SAP solutions, so targeting customers makes sense.

What do you think?

In the spirit of crowdsourcing, I’d love to get your feedback. Have you participated in a user- testing program? Do you have an opinion on whether more companies should leverage this strategy? Post a comment here.

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