I had an epiphany attending the Office 2.0 conference this week, and it helped cancel some of my skepticism about the future of Office/Enterprise/Web 2.0. What dissolved was my doubts that this was a revolution worth participating in: I see the light, at least some dim reflections of the future brightness of these efforts, and I now understand their inevitability. The idea that OEW 2.0 can improve collaboration, communication, and information-sharing, particularly inside the firewall, is a good one, and one that is here to stay.
Staying power, however, is not something I would attribute to many of its current proponents. What remains firmly rooted in my skeptical brain is the notion that little if any of the main technologies/solutions that I see in OEW 2.0 will turn the VCs and entrepreneurs backing these fledgling companies rich. Someone will get rich, for sure, but most likely not this first wave of acolytes.
My own OEW 2.0 epiphany came from watching the youthful vigor of these new revolutionaries as they described the rogue operations, underground movements, and subterfuges they have undertaken in the process of infiltrating corporate America (and Europe) with OEW 2.0 technology.
Their efforts reminded me of a revolution I was part of more than 20 years ago, when I and some fellow subversives tried to infiltrate the U.S. government’s largest agency (HHS) with the highly suspect and little understood personal computer. We used many of the same tactics that Office 2.0 speakers talked about. Small pilots, run in a totally ad hoc manner, with senior level sponsors somewhat secretively supporting our efforts, off-budget procurements, and other such nonsense. It was fabulously fun, at the same level of fun that I could see in the OEW 2.0 gang, and, well, the ultimate outcome of our efforts needs no real delineation here.
There’s an important lesson from my experience in the guerilla PC wars of the 80s that informs my current understanding of how OEW 2.0 will evolve, and it’s the main reason why I’m skeptical about how long and how well most of the current OEW 2.0 vendors will survive. The PC revolution had many similarities – including the spectacular lack of a provable cost-effectiveness or ROI, as well as an appeal to youth culture and a promise that this new thing would improve how things get done in ways we cannot calculate today. The PC revolution was also similar in that the number of pioneering companies was enormous – Kaypro, Radio Shack, Sinclair, Texas Instruments, and, of course, Apple, to name but a few. And therein lies the doom for most of the OEW 2.0 vendors today.
What was significant was that none of these pioneering efforts – including Apple’s, though Steve Jobs would probably burst a vessel reading this – would really take off until an old-line company lurched into the market and legitimized it, and then grabbed the lion’s share. That company was, of course, IBM, and the IBM PC became, for better or worse, the standard bearer in a market that Big Blue seized through the droits de seigneur that companies like IBM are known to exercise. In the process, IBM bestowed a similar set of droits on Bill Gates, and the rest, as they say, was Microsoft.
This I believe will be the trajectory of OEW 2.0 as it evolves from the primordial corporate ooze to the top of the food chain. It will take a similar big company with similar droits de seigneur to make OEW 2.0 something the CFO can put his or her signature to. So watch what IBM, Oracle, SAP and Microsoft have to offer in coming years. Once they hit the OEW 2.0 market big time, a lot of the theory of OEW 2.0 will become reality.
What about all those cool OEW 2.0 companies with their youthful, Startup 2.0 look and feel? The other thing I learned from Office 2.0 is that this revolution is blessedly not about individual vendors or technologies: Its practitioners seem to be largely technology agnostic, and much more healthily focused on using whatever it takes to get the job done. In fact, the only common denominator in their technology choices can be summed up in five words: free, or largely free software. Competing with free is something a startup can do for only so long, while very large vendors are used to spending huge sums of money on nothing and still turning a profit.
So, a hearty vive la revolution to the OEW 2.0 guerillas. And, you vendors, see you at the barricades, if I don’t see you at the firing squad first.