Software emperors in the buff

When you strip away the B2B buzzwords, what's left?

Enterprise software stocks came crashing down at the end of this week. Folks attributed the plummet, in large part, to IT buying-cycle uncertainties, as detailed by Oracle earlier this week.

But there's more going on here. I think customers finally are wising up to the fact that many of the Wall Street tech darlings are software emperors without any clothes.

I'm not only talking about legacy software vendors such as Oracle, PeopleSoft and SAP who are thrashing about, desperately trying e-biz themselves into oblivion. I'm also talking about companies in that mysterious middleware category affectionately known as B2B (business-to-business), like Ariba and i2.

Without using B2B buzzwords, explain in five words or less what Ariba does--I dare you.

Ariba itself had some trouble remaining buzzword-neutral when company brass spent the better part of Wednesday trying to explain Ariba's new-and-improved positioning to Wall Street analysts and press who attended its Value Chain Summit in New York.

Ariba, which currently sells software that companies use for the mundane purpose of streamlining their procurement of goods and services, is desperately seeking to reapply the gloss to the increasingly lackluster B2B category. I knew we all were in trouble when Ariba executives opened the presentation by thrashing about to define "value chain."

Depending on which jargon-rich definition floats your boat, Ariba is now a "collaborative e-commerce" company, a "collaborative commerce company," an "online B2B company," or any combination of the above.

Analysts attending the presentation veered between furiously scribbling notes on their yellow-lined pads and having their eyes glaze over, as Ariba executives detailed the finer points of Ariba's forthcoming production-VCM (value-chain management) suite.

Hey, I dared wonder aloud: Isn't this just new wine in old bottles? I mean, I heard ERP and supply-chain software makers talk about this stuff way back when I was a cub reporter writing about EDI. The only difference I could ascertain was that these days, it's more hip to talk about automating processes than it is to talk about shipping software modules.

I was immediately banished to the powder room for my impudence and obvious lack of understanding of the subtleties of B2B. I used my downtime to check Ariba's stock price. Hmmm. Just over $16 (and just over $14 on Friday afternoon). A 52-week low. I guess I wasn't the only one who failed to see how Ariba was bringing "clarity" to the B2B market, as its officials maintained at the start of their slides.

Granted, e-commerce is complex, as is the B2B subset of that market. In its broadest definition, as Ariba noted, B2B can encompasses tasks ranging from managing travel and expense procedures, to designing products on CAD workstations.

The question is: Can any one vendor do it all? Should a company even try? Software companies such as Oracle and Ariba increasingly are selling themselves as benign dictators who will provide customers with full suites of integrated software and services, delivered neatly over the Net.

But is this progress? Or the death-knell for best-of-breed point products, not to mention freedom of choice?

What's your take? Is there any "there" there, when it comes to B2B software providers? Talk back below and let me know what you think.