Mazy Dar thinks trading apps should be like mobile phone apps.
“Think about what happens on phones, most users have an incredibly simple experience,” says the CEO of OpenFin which lets trading apps approach the user-friendliness of an iPhone. “Users download an app, the apps are simple and easy to use and all the apps on the phone work together. If you are in Calendar and tap Address, it opens Google Maps and you can order Uber. And you can share messages,” he said.
“You also have a layer of security around all of this. If I download an app on my phone, that app doesn’t automatically have access to my photos or my location. That is the simple experience everyone loves on the phone.”
By contrast financial desktop applications don’t have instant distribution.
“It can take months to deploy an app to a trader because banks and other financial firms put the app through security reviews and other testing to make sure it won’t do anything nefarious or malicious once it is installed on the desktop. But even after testing, once the app is installed, it has complete, unfettered access to all the other systems.”
To attain interoperability across financial desktop applications generally requires using a person as the integration layer. A trader sees pricing on a trading screen and then types that CUSIP into an internal system to see the inventory and then has to go to a separate CRM app to find customers who traded that bond.
“What we have done at OpenFin is built an OS layer that sits on top of Windows, Mac and Linux and brings that phone app experience to the financial desktop…the desktop OS we use in finance are almost entirely Windows 7, although but firms are working to upgrade to Windows 10. However, neither has any of the capabilities iOS and Android have on their phones. The key is HTML5, which brings industrial strength performance and security to the enterprise.”
Open Fin has been a hit with financial firms; Dar said it has been deployed to more than 1,500 firms, and runs over 1,000 apps on nearly 200,000 desktops.
“Our mission is to have the OpenFin OS on every desktop at every bank and buyside firm.”
It uses HTML5 to provide a desktop experience in a web browser. OpenFin exposes APIs that allows a web app to start to look and behave like a native desktop app, allows windowing, secure system access, all the things a browser cannot do.
The industry is in the middle of an evolution to HTML5, he added.
“Even a few years ago people said HTML5 isn’t fast enough. You don’t hear that any more. Now trading apps are being upgraded to HTML5 because it is faster than .Net and Java and some of the biggest upgrades can be deployed instantly. They have to go through testing but basically the issue is whether it works, will end users be happy, not whether it is secure.”
For apps built on older tech like C++ and .Net, OpenFin connects to them through adapters. But increasingly apps are being built on HTML5, what Dar describes as a macro trend that began around 2013 and has been accelerating since.
“Many of the largest banks have web-first strategies where they are building primarily in web tech and migrating older apps over to the web as well. We provide an environment for web apps to run in so you can have interactive desktop experience that end users expect.
“A big bank may have an app in .Net or Java and use OpenFin Adopters, and then eventually rewrite some parts of the app in HTML5, like writing a trader blotter in HTML5 while leaving the trading app alone. The end user doesn’t know that part of what he is using is .Net and part is in HTML5. This allows firms to migrate intermittently over time without creating a disjointed experience for users.”
Banks typically have a huge amount of legacy code, but as older apps are rewritten or simply retired, new apps will be in HTML5.
One advantage to HTML5 is that it offers write once, run anywhere — desktops, home MacBooks and phones.
“Several years ago big banks started asking what the future would look like and they realized their apps are targeting users in different places. They had some apps on internal desktops for their own employees and those often were .Net or Java. They had apps targeting institutional customers on their desktops — those were written in Flash and Silverlight. Then they had apps there for the Web that needed to run in browsers, and they were dealing with mobile. So they could be rewriting interfaces in four different places to distribute the same content — whether research or market data.”
Now it is rare for a vendor to develop an app that isn’t built in HTML5.
The OpenFin structure builds on the security a financial firm has in place already.
“We are replacing native apps, and native apps which even after security reviews have access to the local OS. We have a great security story which resonates with folks in IT security because they realize we leverage all the investment they have made in security — filtering web content, tools to monitor logging — we leverage all that with the web apps that run on OpenFin.”
The HTML5 does run into some opposition from the IT staff responsible for software packaging, he added.
“They are used to packaging software and a particular mode of getting apps to end users and they sometimes struggle with idea there is no need to do a security review. We met with one of the biggest banks and a number of individuals were asking why they wouldn’t treat this like any other app. Their boss said we are using all the same technologies that the bank is already comfortable with for browsers and since they don’t package web sites they don’t’t need to package apps that come across OpenFin. We have huge interest in getting behind [this approach] because it [traditional deployment] costs a lot of money and serves no useful purpose.”
In a report released a year ago, Driving Innovation Through Software Deployment, Greenwich Associates said that “the current method for developing and deploying software within large financial services institutions has changed little over the last 20 years, and is archaic when compared to the rapid innovation achieved in software deployment to consumer-focused devices.”
It pointed to the distribution of apps for mobile phones as a model.
“Slow and inefficient software deployment processes cost the financial services industry some $1.5 billion annually,” concluded Kevin McPartland, head of Greenwich Associates Market Structure and Technology Research.
“The widespread adoption of improved software deployment processes could deliver significant cost and efficiency gains and spur an explosion of institutional fintech innovation that is clearly bubbling below the surface and waiting to emerge,” he added.