Doing It Better

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Doing It Wrong: Enterprise Systems, I mean. And not just a little bit, either. Orders of magnitude wrong. Billions and billions of dollars worth of wrong. Hang-our-heads-in-shame wrong. It’s time to stop the madness…

What I’m writing here is the single most important take-away from my Sun years, and it fits in a sentence: The community of developers whose work you see on the Web, who probably don’t know what ADO or UML or JPA even stand for, deploy better systems at less cost in less time at lower risk than we see in the Enterprise. This is true even when you factor in the greater flexibility and velocity of startups.” – Tim Bray

Mostly I’m writing this so you’ll read Tim’s piece, because you need to. In a very real sense, Doing It Wrong is about RedMonk. It explains, probably better than we could, why we exist. As long as we’ve been around, we’ve been pushing enterprises to become less enterprisey.

Let’s acknowledge up front that, whatever their various product shortcomings, the successful enterprise software vendors excel at extracting economic value from the market. And from a certain vantage point – Wall Street’s, for instance – a market that efficiently translates opportunity into working capital has few, if any, material issues. That vantage point is wrong.

Enterprise software is, as Tim says, doing it wrong. Every user that prefers Gmail, every developer that’s touched UML, every DBA that wonders why their database software arrives in a box, on multiple DVDs, can tell you that enterprise software has a lot of what my first grade teacher use to call, “room for improvement.”

Tim’s explanation for the vendor software’s shortcomings are largely cultural. I don’t disagree. But it’s more complicated than that. The culture that’s at fault is, largely, a product of the vendor’s DNA. And the DNA, in turn, is a function of the incentives involved.

Which means that enterprises get the software products they deserve.

Consider the thought that went into the construction of the iPhone. It’s virtually flawless. In spite of the fact that the software that lets you make phone calls isn’t the same software that lets you play music, the two applications are aware of each other such that your music subtly fades out as a call comes in. What drives Apple, besides Jobs’ obsession with the user experience? The same thing that drives every other commercial concern: revenue. Apple’s design fetish is, more than any other single factor, the author of its $190B market cap.

How’s that for an incentive?

Enterprise technology vendors, like Apple, have their incentives. They’re just very, very different. Apple’s customer is you or me. For the large system vendor, as one candidly admitted at a recent conference, the customer is our employer. Who will be looking for, you can be certain, very different things from the product. Where we put a premium on usability, employers favor manageability. For consumers, brand stands for aesthetics or speed or status. For enterprises, brands more often than not mean “what will not get me fired.”

Which seems unreasonable until you consider that it’s consumer technology that’s about want. Enterprise technology, need. Most of us don’t lust over ERP systems the way that we might a giant flatscreen. Or so I hope.

For all that the enterprise appears doomed to software designed by committees, for committees – that there is in fact no other plausible outcome – it’s not. Consider what’s happening with NoSQL. Facing the technical challenge Adam Bosworth was talking about six years ago, a number of commercial entities like Facebook (Cassandra), LiveJournal (memcached) and Yahoo (Hadoop) created not only software solutions but spawmed communities to support them.

In other words, this was software designed by customers, for customers. We’re going to see more of this. Just as we’re going see consumer technology from enterprise providers.

Why? Because in many respects, it’s better. And better means good business. Which is what the enterprise guys are all about.


  1. Stephen, you close with “software designed by customers, for customers. We’re going to see more of this”. To a great extent, while I would love to see it be so, I will disagree. Why ? For the very reaso you state early one, “DNA”. Like, the real DNA of genetic material, it changes very very slowly. Darwin was right on this one. Only through environmental change and many many generations, does change take place to favor the superior gene. I think you will see “enterprise systems” change very very slowly. Even if you take into account “internet time” it may not happen in yours or my career lifetime. There will be exceptions but I suspect they will be the exception and not the norm.

  2. @Glen: respectfully disagree. enterprise vendors will continue on their present course for years, true, but already they find themselves competing with market entrants with entirely different design philosophies. IBM and MSFT, for example, are increasingly competing with Google in the collaboration space. enterprise hardware providers like HP and Lenovo are increasingly competing with Apple.

    why? because the barriers between the enterprise markets and everyone else are eroding.

    to compete, then, the larger enterprises will be forced to adapt, regardless of their DNA. and adaptation these days is merely a synonym for change.

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