Enterprise apps, Lotusphere and the Hollywood era

Is it me or are user conferences taking on the appearance of Hollywood premieres? Users deserve better.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Is it me or are more and more enterprise applications vendors attempting to emulate Hollywood as their marketing modus? And if so, why are they wasting their (your) money in this way?

At the beginning of the week the Twitterverse at Lotusphere seemed to have gone nuts at the appearance of Kevin Spacey on the main keynote stage. The collective squeals of delight could best be summed up as: "Yay - Kevin gets it...yay - social business...yay - social anything...yay, yay, yay."

Don't misunderstand me. The use case Mr Spacey enunciated represented an interesting discussion of surfacing long tail talent but let's not forget - he's an actor. A very fine actor. His performance as the wholly believable but utterly insane John Doe in Seven continues to mesmerise. He's paid to sound interesting. He's paid to sound cool, entertain and promote the brand of the company he is representing.

Sitting in the internet cheap seats I found the whole display reminiscent of the days when teenage girls screamed and swooned when the Fab Four turned up at an airport. At the time you kinda think there is something going on and maybe 40 years on we can look back and say yes. But if you're a little older and still washing out your ears from the marketing BS then there's another way to see this.

When all the noise died down I was left with one question: Was there anything fundamentally NEW at Lotusphere? Even the normally enthusiastic James Governor struggled to find anything noteworthy to say other than:

Wish the panellists were being asked how IBM/Lotus software was helping them, rather than vague  questions 

This from someone who does an admirable job handwaving on behalf of developers. The closest I saw comes from Alex Williams:

Developing a [social business] tool kit is a smart, natural step and a necessary one for IBM. Getting beyond the image of a legacy technology still dogs Lotus. IBM needs developers in order to make the mind shift with customers that Lotus is a platform more than a network of apps.

The closest I heard of business value came from our own Paul Greenberg who talked about how the government of Trinidad spends about $10 per head with IBM to deliver government outreach services to all its citizens. He thinks this was the best social use case he had heard. I'd like to hear citizens echo that support. And all that despite 14,396 tweets from 1,718 contributors as at 3.20pm yesterday (now 15,629 from 1,795).

In fairness, Twitter's 140 character limit does not help in providing context and Paul hinted that he now has a treasure trove of 4-5 weeks worth of material to disseminate. Be that as it may - I am reflecting the impression given by the Twitterverse. The cynic in me wonders the extent to which the social anything consulting Twitterers are self promoting. I hope the other 48,000 people at Lotusphere will see things differently.

Next we hear that Salesforce.com is buying up spots at the upcoming SuperBowl. Why? According to Denis Prombiant:

In the ads Salesforce will provide a real-life demonstration of Chatter being used to coordinate the creative activities of a swarm of people in San Francisco, Los Angeles and who knows where else to produce the ads.  At their heart, the paired ads will be a use story, working on the Super Bowl project, with the Super Bowl half time entertainers to boot.  Understand one more thing — this is to promote the freemium Chatter product.

I still don't get it. Does Salesforce.com truly believe that ads taken out for Super Bowl are going to drive Chatter adoption? Who among the audience are they trying to reach? Even if that same audience is sucked in won't they just as quickly wonder about the limitations of the Chatter freebie? But then there is a certain logic to this.

Regular readers will know that for this correspondent, the last Dreamforce was way too heavy on a heady mixture of celebrity and what felt like a revival meeting and far too light on meaningful innovation. In one sense what we are seeing is a continuance of the celebrity driven thinking behind Salesforce.com.

I feel that user conferences have lost their way. They seem to have become an excuse for holding a great party that majors on maximum froth and minimal content. That has to be worrying. While we may enjoy everything that Hollywood has to offer in the end it is fantasy, an unreal world that's out of reach for all but a very few. Yet enterprise software arguably impacts everyone. Do we need to treat it in such trivial terms? I don't think so. Consider this:

Late yesterday evening I had a conversation with Dr Vishal Sikka, executive board member SAP. He started the conversation: "I saw something unbelievable today. A proof of concept of All-in-One running in memory. I'm absolutely convinced there is a new reality facing us."

All-in-One is SAP ERP for the mid-market. There's a lot of it out there. A couple of years back when Hasso Plattner, SAP co-founder announced SAP's new found in-memory religion, I recall asking him whether he thought it would ever be possible to run transaction systems this way. At the time, Dr Plattner wasn't certain. In our conversation, Dr Sikka reminded me that this is something to which SAP is aspiring and they are clearly making rapid progress. The implications are huge for ROI, compute costs, a shrinking IT landscape to run complex systems and high speed analytics. Is that enough to get customers excited?

"When you look at what in-memory offers us, a big part of that means we can rethink the science of software development. We haven't done that in the last ten or so years. This is exciting for the future of software development and what it means for companies like SAP to deliver complex software but in a fraction of the time it used to take us," said Dr Sikka. Agile?  No - a lot more. We're talking about removing the boundaries that corral apps inside the notion of certain databases, server environments and UIs.

If you're a geek, that might sound intriguing but as I asked Dr Sikka: how are you going to get developers excited when all the noise we're hearing is around the show business of software? I already know the answer to this as I am sure does James Governor. But in order to convince, SAP (and others in the enterprise space) have to start demonstrating deliverable value that can be tied to the freeing up of resources needed to motivate and inspire developers towards solving Big Hairy Problems.

In response, Dr Sikka said that this year, SAP will deliver in-memory based sales and opportunity planning, trades promotion management, cash and liquidity management and analytics in smart metering. These may not sound particularly exciting but are topics that matter to all companies moving away from cost reduction and into revenue generation. Some - like trades promotion management - have special interest for those wanting to take the guesswork out of campaigns that work. Cash and liquidity management have a direct bearing on a business's ability to profitably manage cash flow while having reliable predictors for the future. Providing analytical visibility into smart meter data holds a myriad of as yet unmined opportunity for utilities while sales and opportunity planning provides the context for a scientific approach to complex sales management.

You're not going to see those topics on a billboard anytime soon. But then the decision makers who consider investing for these topics are not likely to buy based upon a snazzy advert - however that might be delivered.

As a side note: did anyone else notice that Amazon is now offering Oracle Database as part of its on-demand compute capability? That's pretty big news too.

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