Once the architect and programmer for Onyx's customer relationship management (CRM) software, Brent Frei, president and CEO of Onyx Software, now inhabits a distinctly more managerial role. During the launch of version 4.0 of Onyx's flagship Customer Centre suite, IDG's Tao Ai Lei met up with Frei, who was decidedly upbeat that the future of front-office applications may outshine that of enterprise resource planning (ERP) applicationsIDG: You have said that implementation of Onyx's Customer Center application is quick. Does that take into account the customisation of products for different vertical industries?
Frei: The classic thing for companies to do when they get software, is to say that their business is totally unlike anyone else's. They say, "I need it to be just like mine, I'm different, I'm going to need to change your software." The reality is, they are 80 per cent the same as everybody else, whether they sell cars or software, with marketing and service needs.
Customers often focus on changing the wrong things, like shifting the field around in the interface. Those are so low value-added, compared to big ticket things like automating the escalation of incidence, automating the distribution of sales opportunities, or automating the response to people asking questions of a company.
Instead of spending time designing an interface as they want it, they should take an interface that has been time-tested across 300 different customers, adopt that and focus on the specific pieces of the business process that are different.
So do customers typically stick to Onyx's style of organising data?
The way I order our application, there are three tiers. There is the user interface (UI), business layer, and the database that holds the data tables.
The first thing a company typically does when customising is to change the UI (user interface). The reality is, they should change things at the business layer or the database. Our core business rules are there, and we have an API-like interface for changes or enhancements, and for customisations to be transferable when upgrades happen.
We decided that the core database should be flexible and complete enough that they don't need to add to it. Instead, customers can configure to have any data or business relationship without having to change the physical structure. Otherwise, they will probably change the optimisation of it as it scales.
We have built a layer that enables customers to do customisations and integration. We also spent time building the API or SPK that will link with other systems, like the accounting system, rather then having them code in here.
What are some of your plans for your product. Will it change dramatically over the next few years?
The fundamental value is in the platform, in the business and database layer. The thing that will change the most dramatically will be the UI, with a migration to more browser-based interfaces.
There will be ISVs that will build their own browsers on top of our systems. Other ERP systems and document management systems will plug in to this platform. We will continue to enhance our platform, as the number of verticals and industries we can attack by focusing specifically on these external factors, will let us expand a lot more dramatically than if we were to build it ourselves.
Does the fact that Onyx runs only on NT shut you off from potential customers who prefer a Unix platform?
Absolutely. That is an entire market we don't get to play in. But when we were forming Onyx, we decided it was worth giving it up to be the best in the NT, BackOffice and SQL market space. We believed that it was going to grow dramatically, which it has.
Statistics show that NT and the SQL server have 18 per cent of the customer management market today, and that by 2000 it will be 32 per cent of the market, in a different direction from Unix.