I just spent an hour catching up with IBM's latest briefing on the completion of its acquisition of MRO Software, and it reminded me how much the future of software is really more of the same. This sanity check comes at the end of a week that showcased two paradigm bending concepts -- software as a service and Office/Web 2.0 -- at back-to-back conferences in downtown San Francisco (Salesforce.com's Dreamforce and Office 2.0). What I realized listening to what IBM wants to do with MRO is that, at best, only some paradigms will really get bent. The rest of them will stay firmly in place for some time.
MRO sells enterprise software in what is called the enterprise asset management (EAM) space, allowing companies to manage how they deploy, upgrade, repair, maintain, and otherwise utilize physical assets in anything from a manufacturing shop floor to a nuclear power plant to a fleet of service trucks. The idea is that, if there's a chip and an interface, and the asset is smart enough to "talk" to the outside world, MRO, and now IBM, can help manage that asset, maximize its use, and perhaps save a little money in the process.
What I find important to realize is that this EAM opportunity, whether or not it results in more revenues for IBM or for some of its many competitors, largely defies both SaaS and Web 2.0 thinking. The quantity and complexity of the multitude of interfaces that an EAM system would need to connect to, and the requirement that the reports and analysis that result be very specific to the individual company and its individual industry, pretty much rule out a SaaS offering. There's just too many moving parts, too little commodity functionality, too much damn complexity for a SaaS solution to be either truly usuable by the customer and truly profitable for a vendor.
And Web/Office 2.0: I didn't spend nearly as much time at the recent Office 2.0 conference as I would have liked, but it's clear to me that the Web 2.0/Office 2.0 gang isn't really capable of tackling this kind of opportunity, at least today. Part of the reason is that the solution set has to come from a very deep well of industry-specific knowledge, something I find largely lacking in most of the Web 2.0 products I've seen to date. Technical knowledge abounds, and some serious paradigm-busting chops are to be found all over the Web 2.0/Office 2.0 world. But nerdly qualfications pale in comparison to the need for deep knowledge of how to create new innovation in specific vertical industries, and I have to admit I think it will take an IBM or an MRO Software or one of their many Enterprise 1.0 competitors to crack the code about what helps industries innovate at the core of their businesses.
There's a lot of interesting "stuff" in Web 2.0 and Office 2.0 -- but the business model is still too focused on cooler-than-thou showboating and not enough focused on meeting the big problems, like asset management, that bedevil companies today. Until it can meet this real-world challenge, Web/Office 2.0 will be great for the conference circuit, and not yet ready for the boardroom.