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Giving Users What They Want

Reading David’s post on not being able to use his favorite apps at work, I thought, “It’s little wonder we have the term ‘IT Nazis.'”

That attitide in IT made sense when enterprise IT lead innovation over consumer IT. But, now consumer IT is where all the innovation happens, and has happened, for the past few years. This means that if you follow the old model — IT department driven IT instead of user-driven IT — you fall behind the times.

If only Google would charge for GMail and GCal, and thus be accountable when things go wrong, they’d be a viable option for enterprise messaging. Sure, it wouldn’t be a 1:1 mapping to the feature charts (from Exchange, Notes, etc.) that exist today — no shared folders — but that’s a huge part of the point: it’s just what you need.

And then with locked and enrypted access to thinks like PBWiki, information workers would have a quick and light-weight platform that was secure and didn’t require anything buy a montly paycheck.

It’s Not Really That Easy

There are several things missing from the above drool-fest:


As Steve noted, RedMonk would probably be using GMail and GCal if only we could pay for it. RedMonk has had such a troubled past with hosting providers, that we like to make sure there’s as much leverage for complaining and getting support as possible. Free services don’t offer warm and fuzzy feelings for that type of paranoia.


The main thing that’s missing from that big switch is identity management. For example, if you were using GMail, PBWiki, and any number of other public web apps to run your business, how would you easily revoke access when you fire an employee? Granted…without spending a lot of money, it’s just as hard behind-the-firewall as beyond it. But, at the very least, you can cut off the employees access to the network, making it much harder for them to use their behind-the-firewall accounts.

Data Control

Culturally, people still want complete control over their data. If they’re using an online wiki, they want a way to pull out the entire wiki instantly if needed. They don’t want their SaaS providers holding their data hostage: the freedom to leave.

ODF for Export

As a side note, I heard an intriguing suggestion recently: using ODF as the generic format for exports. I don’t know the ins and out os ODF as well I should, or as well as Steve, but apparently ODF can contain multipule “documents” of a variety of formats. That is, while ODF can represent a single document, it can also act as a container for multiple documents such as word processors, spreadsheets, presentations…and wiki pages.

If that’s true — and if ODF is simple enough — it seems like it’d be the obvious export format for most hosted sites, solving the “I want my data” problem.

The Synchronized Web

Desktop application are actually quite handy for many information applications. I put it that way, because I used to be a web-bigot: if it wasn’t a web only application, it seemed dumb to me. Once I got on OS X, I understood how well a desktop application could work. More importantly, when your desktop application is a front-end for the web (like ecto, my blog editor), things go better.

What most desktop applications lack now-a-days are features that are fully web-enabled, in a bi-directional sense. Take Apple’s iCal for example. It can suck down iCal calendars from GCal, but you can publish calendars up into GCal. Zimbra seems to be even more limited when it comes to iCal interaction (I downloaded the Zimbra syncer, but it didn’t install; I need to follow up on that; hopefully I’m being unfair, meaning, it’ll work for me).

Now, I can already hear what many people are saying with those two examples: something like, “actually, [iCal|Zimbra|my favorite app] has that ability built it, but so and so doesn’t work with it because they flipped the booty-bit and/or the whoopty-do.”

Exactly. I don’t really care why these things don’t work together. What’s more important to me is the fact that they don’t. Generalizing it, the reason IT departments go mono-platform with Exchange or Notes is because it all just works together without any excuses about whose booty-bit or whoopty-do is in the wrong place.

The point is this: all of the people who want to fill the space of enterprise messaging with consumer apps needs to get together and cooperate. Working with as many other applications, outside of your only silo, should become a bragging right, not an annoying feature on the backlog that’s always coming “next release.”

The thing is, that sort of interop is the primary competitive difference between the web-based consumer app world I’m talking about here and the enterprise world. The best way to achieve that interop is to write to standards. But, if that takes to long, simply working with other vendors is a good stop-gap while still hammering out the standard.

For Enterprise Tech

Reversing the attention stream a bit, all of this thinking, esp. the last part applies to current enterprise messaging people. From a user’s perspective, it’d be great if Exchange and Notes “just worked” with GMail, Yahoo! Mail, MSN, and their respective calendars.

In speaking with vendors on this topic, I often get the reply that they’re working on a standard for it. That’s great. But as either Steve or James recommended last time we had this discussion, why not just contact, for example, Google, and work on calendar interop right now? Sure, there are standards in development, but in the meantime, if you’re doing cross-silo scheduling, you have to use email.

Indeed, it seems like there’d be fewer better ways to practice emergent standards than that.

Disclaimer: Microsoft and IBM are clients.

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Categories: Enterprise Software, Marketing.

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2 Responses

  1. I dunno, even with all that, the reasoning seems poor.

    I’ll give you the example of the office where I work right now: Everyone is on Windows for their personal workstation. Shit is as locked down as can reasonably be (you have to put in a months long request for local administrative rights for your account [a: frustrating for developers who likely need to get a tool installed to fix the fucking critical bug tonight, b: pointless anyway since Windows doesn’t require administrative access to run unsigned code that can install any sort of nasty shit/malware/trojan/steal-your-megahurtz]) and we all use Microsoft Outlook and Exchange.

    This is completely insufficient for normal work because of the cube layout. Very, VERY often people need to ask a quick question in a synchronous manner and getting up and going over to someone is a waste of your time and their time. Oh, sure we *could* get whatever Microsoft’s solution for Enterprise instant messaging is installed and running and whatever, but that would involve a corporate wide deployment and months of evaluation on business concerns and production systems.

    So what do people do? Download GTalk and proxy through some long-forgotten webservers. Doing two things: being unsecure, and actually getting shit done. They do the same thing with Webmail (which the company does not supply a solution to).

    Ultimately, the Enterprise is shooting itself in the foot.

    Now, does Outlook work pretty good? Yeah, I can access it from any workstation, I can see other people’s appointments and schedule events, etc.

    Would I switch to pine in a heartbeat if I could? You betcha, because Outlook sucks monkey nuts, it is slow, it is unresponsive, it is too complicated, and it is dumb about reply chains. At least pine would be out of the f’ing way.

    Sorry, I started venting at the end.

    DannoJuly 18, 2006 @ 7:12 pm
  2. Ah, the GTalk in GMail hole. That was a stroke of genius from Google that I didn’t see at the time until a friend of mine told me she used it because she couldn’t install software on her work machine.
    I have to agree with you on the desktop angle. In a locked down environment, the whole desktop angle gets cut, and you have to go totally web based. But, if the ultimate controller of extreme locked-down environments like yours, Microsoft, started opening up more in the ways outlined above, you might be able to go more hybrid.
    If not, then, hey, it’s web apps all the way. PCs didn’t get into the workplace because of the IT department: users wanted them, and IT eventually scrambled to take charge of them. The same could happen (and probably is) with a purely web based approach.
    All that said, if you can control your desktop, getting a mix of desktop and web apps seems to best to me. Which, really, is advice for the IT department (and Microsoft): change and create your systems such that that’s possible.