The High Art of Information Integration

Integration by Malcom J. TibbettsI recently spent some time examining the fascinating new Highrise application from Web 2.0 wünderkind 37 Signals. Without a doubt, it’s totally cool. It has that simple, pretty look that all their apps live by and usability was up to their traditionally high level. It has many unique features that I’ve not found in comparable desktop applications.

However, I was struck by how trapped my data felt once I’d input some of it into the web app. Highrise rounds out 37 Signals’ stable of web-based applications nicely, but data integration between the various environments is very poor. For example, I was able to import my contacts from my Basecamp project management environment into Highrise, but the two data environments otherwise exist in isolation and ignorance of one another. I was quite disappointed by this.

As well, if you consider all of the features in their various applications, there’s a fair amount of overlap between them. For example, they all do task lists, but each slightly differently and in complete isolation of one another. Personally, as I look at the various 37 Signals applications (Basecamp, Highrise, Backpack, and Campfire) I want them all under one roof, with fully shared and integrated data. Instead, 37 Signals wants me to invest in a number of different products, each with a unique interaction and data model, with a fairly high degree of data redundancy.

And then there’s that age-old Web 2.0 problem with Highrise: it requires internet connectivity. I suppose this alone is what will keep me using the Mac OS Address Book and .Mac: the natural combination of desktop and web environments.

Recently I’ve spent a lot of time researching full-blown web-based Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems such as Salesforce.com and NetSuite. I find that they all tend to do everything the various 37 Signals apps do, but much better and with a much higher level of integration. In fact, web-based CRMs are all about data integration, it’s their hallmark attribute. Furthermore, these CRM systems are designed for desktop synchronization. They typically work best in a Microsoft environment, such as Outlook, but there is a tool available to hook NetSuite into the Mac OS.

The point of entry for taking advantage of web CRMs is relatively high, ranging anywhere from $45 to $125 per user. However, to attain a similar level of service across all 37 Signals products is even more dear: to go top-of-the-line you’d be looking at a monthly bill of about $260. You could have as many users in the system as you like at that level of pricing, but you’d be giving up desktop accessibility and data integration.

Clearly, the 37 Signals line of products is targeted at a different market than Salesforce.com or NetSuite, so comparisons are somewhat unfair. However, with the addition of Highrise, they are edging in on the territory of these much larger players, and they don’t offer the same range of services, functionality, and features. After all, they do describe it as, “simple CRM.”

I like 37 Signals’ products, I really do. They’re clean, fresh, and easy to use. And to be honest, I really want to use them. However, I’m stymied by their lack of data integration and the fact that they’re completely web-based. To be totally honest, however, I don’t find that any solution on the market totally suits my needs, be it on the desktop or the web. I’m still waiting for the next generation of software that bridges the gap and gives me my data wherever I might be, online or offline, and allows me to easily share it with others.

2 thoughts on “The High Art of Information Integration

  1. Apollo fills this very gap. It breaks web apps out of the browser and onto the desktop, complete with online and offline functionality. There’s already been a number of functional apps developed – Gmail and eBay are notable entries – that may be of interest to you.Apollo and Flex actually represent one hour of my day, every single morning. It’s my goal to get a good handle on Flex within the year and start using it for my design projects asap.

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