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Product: Online crop control

The World Wide Web, the go-to source for news, weather, market information and more, is now home to crop management software that promises anywhere access and relief from the hassles of being your own IT expert.

Although PC-based software continues to dominate the crop software market, Web-based software with features ranging from basic record keeping to sophisticated GIS modules now is available — and more is likely in the future. Web-based software providers say their products offer unique advantages that are attractive to customers who want to be able to access crop management information from anywhere with an Internet connection.

“That was our goal: to give farmers a tool that gives them access to their cropping information no matter where they are,” says Hoyt Choate, whose company, TapLogic, introduced a Web-based software package called FarmLogic in 2008. “As we investigated software trends, everybody I talked to in other segments of the record-keeping software industry was looking at a Web-based software service.”

PC-world skeptics

To date, Web-based software (also called cloud computing) has been found mainly in the corporate sector as an important tool for businesses with multiple locations and mobile workforces. In the consumer software space, Google docs, a free Web-based word processor, may be the most well-known example.

But there are skeptics among traditional PC-based crop software providers about how much of an impact the Web software trend will have on agriculture. They say that their software's sophisticated capabilities would be hard to duplicate on the Web.

“I would have reservations about the Web interface as being the future,” says Ted Macy of MapShots, which sells a range of PC-based crop management software and was recently purchased by Pioneer Hi-Bred. “It is very cumbersome to upload and process large amounts of information on the Web. It is still very difficult to build a [Web-based] user interface for large amounts of information needed by a power user.”

However, even some PC-based software companies acknowledge that the siren call of Web-based software is alluring.

“We feel the [crop management software] market will move to the Web,” says Scott Nusbaum of Farm Works, which also sells PC-based crop management software. But he's skeptical that farmers are ready to make a wholesale shift to computing on the Web in the near future. “If we had Web-based software today, we don't think we could sell it to our customers. But in the long term, that [the Web] is where we see our software going,” he says.

Whether Web- or PC-based, crop management software developers agree on at least one thing: the Internet itself is critical to their product offerings. Web-based software literally couldn't exist without the Internet communications backbone. And increasingly, PC-based software is using the Internet to automate file transfers, speed access to variable-rate prescriptions from ag retailers and crop consultants, and help customers share and back up critical data.

Web advantages, challenges

By definition, Web-based software resides on a remote Web server computer, not the home PC. It is accessed with a Web browser, such as Microsoft's Internet Explorer. At its simplest, crop records are entered via the Web browser and stored on a Web server computer. The office computer becomes a data entry device and a means of transferring files (such as yield monitor data) to the Web server via the Internet. Importantly, records are stored on the Web server, not the office PC.

This approach offers key advantages when compared to PC-based software, proponents say. From a customer's standpoint, these advantages include being able to access the software and crop data from any computer connected to the Internet, more rapid updates and bug fixes, relief from software-related IT support duties, sophisticated data backups and improved security.

There also are advantages for software developers. Web-based software is sold on a subscription basis. This provides an ongoing income stream from subscription fees required to maintain access to the software and archived data. Upgrading software and providing technical support also can be simpler than with a PC program. For example, the logistics of upgrading software and fixing bugs are easier, because only the server program needs changing, not hundreds or thousands of programs residing on customers' PCs.

Challenges include the availability of high-speed Internet, which is all but required for successful use of Web-based software, providers say. Users also have to be comfortable with storing sensitive farm data in off-site computers.

Both factors are said to have contributed to the demise of Vantage Point, a Web-based record-keeping program offered by a joint venture of John Deere, Farmland Industries and Growmark in 2000 and 2001.

“Ten years ago, farmers had far less access to high-speed Internet than they have today,” says Devron Von Gunden of ZedX, which has offered Web-based record-keeping software to agricultural retailers for a decade and to farmers for about two years. “Now high-speed Internet issues have pretty much vanished.”

Web-based software providers argue their products provide security that is superior to that of PC-based software. Data are backed up regularly, and robust password protection assures data integrity, they say.

“If a grower's computer crashes and burns, he doesn't have to worry that he has lost data” with Web-based software, Von Gunden says.

“A lot of security issues surrounding the Web are based on irrational fears,” adds Nusbaum of Farm Works. “But it will take time to get over those concerns for some people.”

Crop producers have at least three Web-based software packages from which to choose. These packages are described on page 10.

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