Tapping into the IT cloud crowd
Two heads are better than one, they say. Well, how about 600,000?
That's how many designers and programmers you have on tap when you use a crowdsourcing service such as Appirio.
Welcome to the crowd in the cloud. It's like tapping into the collective consciousness of Star Trek's Borg cybernetic aliens.
In theory, the work you get back can be better quality, lower-cost, and delivered much faster than if you went through the traditional service provider tendering process.
When US space agency Nasa needed to develop a mobile application to help astronauts track their food intake while on International Space Station (ISS) missions, it threw the challenge out to Appirio's army of developers, in the belief that a problem shared is a problem halved.
The result was the Nasa ISS Food Intake Tracker (Fit), "the world's furthest-out field service app", as Appirio co-founder Narinder Singh describes it.
Nasa wanted an app that could help astronauts combat the bone density and muscle loss associated with working for long periods in microgravity, by making it easier for them to record what they eat.
The app needed to accommodate voice and single-click data entry for ease of use, as the existing weekly Food Frequency Questionnaire was proving too unreliable and insufficiently detailed, Nasa said.
Competition and collaboration
Nasa and Appirio's subsidiary, TopCoder, broke up the project into different time-limited stages - conceptualisation, idea generation, screen design, architecture, assembly and finally "bug hunt" - and invited developers to compete for the top prize at each stage.
About 7,000 developers contributed to the app in some shape or form, says Mr Singh, with the winners of each stage earning up to $1,800 (£1,300), plus a reliability bonus of a few hundred dollars on top.
The final prototype is now being tested on the ISS.
Appirio's business model is based on the apparently paradoxical combination of competition and collaboration. Clients subscribe to the service and put projects out for tender via this hi-tech marketplace.
Developers compete for the work, but their efforts are peer-reviewed. The best work wins the gig - and the money.
"There is a risk of the developers getting nothing," Mr Singh admits, "but others can look at your work and you may get other offers on the back of it."
Appirio, which raised $60m in venture capital funding from General Atlantic and Sequoia, has clients ranging from large media companies, such as Comcast, to old-school manufacturers such as Otis Elevator and Cessna, the light aircraft maker.
'Giving away the crown jewels'
The phenomenon of large, distributed groups coming up with better answers than individuals working on the same problem was explored in James Surowiecki's 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few.
The advent of high-speed broadband and cloud-based computing has made this process much easier to manage, and a number of crowdsourcing agencies have sprung up to exploit the trend.
But there is a natural scepticism about the concept, says Dave Coplin, chief envisioning officer for Microsoft UK.
"One main question for businesses will be: How can we be sure we're not giving away our crown jewels when we put this kind of work out to tender? Then there are concerns over service-level agreements and quality control.
"And thirdly, there is still this sense of empire in the IT community, with IT chiefs wanting to retain control of all aspects of their business processes."
But he believes all these objections can be overcome if companies are sufficiently open and progressive in their culture.
'Living, breathing database'
While the web has long facilitated online marketplaces - Elance, for example - where professionals can tout for publicly advertised work, these are morphing into more sophisticated service providers in their own right, thanks to the growing trend towards crowdsourcing.
Spiceworks, for instance, is a social network of 4.5 million IT professionals around the world that offers free tools to help them do their jobs and a place to share experiences and expertise.
But it also offers "Spicepanels" and "Made in Spiceworks" services, through which companies can crowdsource an entire product development process from concept to implementation.
Jay Hallberg, the company's co-founder and chief operating officer, says: "This is the largest living, breathing database on the planet.
"Our IT pros community now helps companies design and test their products - we've become their first destination when they want to go to market."
CrowdFlower, whose clients include large companies such as eBay, Autodesk and Unilever, specialises in microtasking - dividing up large, complex data projects into manageable units of work, that can then be farmed out to its five million-strong global army of workers.
It offers the platform to allow companies to do this directly, as well as a managed service.
"I think there is a definite trend towards microtasking," says Microsoft's Dave Coplin. "If most of the coding or inputting is fairly basic, the job can be split up into lots of smaller packages and put out to tender on a crowdsourcing website.
"There is a growing market in managing this process and ensuring quality."
Rob Bryant, lead partner in Deloitte's technology consulting practice, agrees, but adds a note of caution: "Lots of organisations are trying this type of crowdsourcing approach. But the Achilles heel at the moment is that you don't know the quality of work you're getting.
"A number of the platforms have recognised this and have introduced quality control as part of the service."
While we may still be a long way from seeing entirely distributed, cloud-based, crowdsourced businesses, having geeks on tap is proving an increasingly attractive option for a growing number of businesses.