'Sexy' enterprise software: it's not for lack of trying

Vendors have been trying to 'sex up' enterprise applications for years

Fellow ZDNet blogging colleague Michael Krigsman helped kick up quite a blogstorm with recent posts regarding how "fun" enterprise software should be.

Vendors have actually been trying to 'sex up' enterprise applications for years

It all started with some comments by Microsoft's Bill Gates (quoted by Kip Kniskern), and developed into a full-blown brouhaha involving Robert Scoble, Nick Carr and Michael, among many other luminaries, including our own Phil Wainewright and Dennis Howlett. Sort of like watching a tennis or ping-pong match, constantly having to turn your head left and right. Michael provides a chronology here.

To summarize, Robert Scoble asked why enterprise software couldn't be as sexy as consumer software, to which Michael said its not the job of enterprise software to be sexy, to which Nick Carr said Michael is full of pish. Michael stood his ground against Nick's assault. (I'm surprised the phrase "you ignorant slut" -- of Saturday Night Live fame -- didn't crop up during these exchanges.)

The premise here is that enterprise software isn't 'sexy,' which implies nobody has attempted to make it sexier yet. This is certainly not the case -- enterprise software vendors have been trying for years to sex it up. Anyone who's been to a big-vendor announcement or trade show anytime over the last 15 years has been bombarded to the funky, thundering, inspiring music and flashy intros to the latest and greatest platforms or systems can't deny that giant marketing machines are put into motion to sell enterprise software the same way cars are sold.

In fact, vendors have been and continue to be notorious for selling the sizzle before the steak has even been removed from the cow. And plenty of sizzle has been sold into enterprises.

Michael is right that enterprise and consumer applications live in two separate worlds, with two different purposes. And enterprise software does need to address more heavy-duty priorities, including legacy support and product lifecycles.

But there's actually nothing new to the argument of making enterprise software as "sexy" or easy to use as consumer software -- this has been a push-and-pull process that has been going on since the first PCs were shipped.

In fact, for the past two decades, vendors have been doing nothing but trying to make their enterprise software sexier. Some called it putting "lipstick on a pig." We're seeing the latest version of this movement with the Web 2.0 world.

Mainframes and PCs existed in separate worlds at first, but by the time the 1990s rolled around, just about every vendor was scrambling to roll out products that featured Windows-based "GUI" front ends to mainframe or legacy systems -- even if it was simply "screen scraping" with no change to back-end processes.

Microsoft Windows was very strong in the consumer space, but is now ubiquitous across enterprises of all sizes. Then there's Linux, used mainly by hobbyists and students at one time. Linux and open source have been extremely sexy in enterprise tech circles. Now, this too has become a critical part of the enterprise. Vendors from IBM to Oracle to Red Hat have been exploiting open source's "sexiness" to the hilt, to enterprise audiences, with positive results.

So it helps vendor sales to dress up their software and make it seem cool, where's the benefit to end user organizations? The flashiness of new software approaches builds enthusiasm and excitement. And employees, end users, and technologists expect better, more intuitive solutions. The people that control the purse strings want to see technology with relevance to the business, which means putting on a friendlier face. And, just as importantly, they're turned on by excitement that comes with new ways of applying technology solutions. There's plenty of excitement around Web 2.0 and online services all across the IT landscape these days -- and that's what gets the business excited about IT as well.

Let's face it, a company with creaky COBOL systems and green-screen interfaces isn't going to attract the talent in needs to attract on the business or tech side of the house. Technologists understand the importance of scalability, security and high availability -- but they long to work with the latest tools and platforms that reflect the latest IT innovations -- and much of this is happening in the Web 2.0 space these days. And employees -- especially the Web 2.0 generation entering the workforce -- expects ease of use and flexibility. Enterprise software will bend and be reshaped to reflect these perceptions.

Do consumer trends shape the look and feel of enterprise systems? Absolutely, yes. Is it to the advantage of IT shops and the organization at large to help make this happen? Yes again. But will enterprise and consumer software always remain in two separate worlds? Yes, but they seem to be getting closer all the time.