WikiLeaks lessons for enterprise software vendors

What can the WikiLeaks saga tells us about the enterprise applications landscape? There are lessons for sure.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Events in the enterprise apps landscape during 2010 have been entertaining to say the least. We started with the resignation/replacement of Leo Apotheker as CEO SAP and are ending on yet another blow to SAP in the shape of interest on damages awarded in the Oracle v SAP/TomorrowNow lawsuit. Behind these and other stories we're left wondering what really happened though many of us, myself included, speculate based on what we think are our best insider information channels.

Contrast that with what we're seeing in the unfolding of the WikiLeaks story. There we get what appear to be unvarnished if selected truths about the machinations of government. We're told this will soon include potentially damaging disclosures about as yet un-named banks. It will be going some if it can outdo the analysis that Francine McKenna has been providing for several years.

Gartner analyst Thomas Otter provides a compelling personal (non-Gartner) perspective about WikiLeaks noting that:

For the last few decades we have been slowly swimming in the ever warmer pond of  a censored and spin filled press and controlled information.

Wikileaks exposes a whole lot of truths. Many banal, even trivial, but many not.

Coincidentally, I saw a TV program last evening: The War You Don't See made by John Pilger, a British war correspondent. It talks to the way in which media is manipulated, whether overtly or otherwise. Media comment is interesting:

Pilger's starting point is that all governments are shysters whose only interest is economic and all journalists are witless dupes. My own suspicion is that the reality is more nuanced: that self-delusion is an abiding principle of the human condition. Politicians convince themselves they are acting within a moral framework even when they clearly aren't and journalists believe they are telling an objective truth; so the narrative that emerges is a collusion of mutual self-deception.

I often see a similar thing happening in the enterprise apps world. We get invited to conferences, are schmoozed and boozed, fed some pat line and then report as though that is the sum and substance. Yet as this year ends I wonder whether the same will be true in 2011? I already see a polarizing of behaviors among the main players.

Despite its ups and downs, SAP has continued to pursue a policy of offering open access to information about its development plans, it continues to field tough questions, takes some of us out to its labs to see for ourselves some of the edge stuff it is working upon and puts its most senior executives in the analyst coconut shy for sometimes sharp questioning. It doesn't always go as well as SAP would like.

For example, at last week's SAP Influencer Summit lunch with Vishal Sikka, SAP executive board member, Brian Sommer dinged him with a question Dr Sikka had trouble parrying: "What does SAP stand for?" It was a fair market based question for which Dr Sikka was not well prepared. It says something for Dr Sikka's humanity that he responded by saying: "I'm a technologist...not a market man." I sense Dr Sikka will be better prepared at future meetings.

Contrast that with Oracle. This is a company that is becoming increasingly secretive, some might say reclusive. Gone are the years when Larry Ellison, CEO took to the conference stage and parried any and all questions from hard nosed hacks. Instead it seems content to throw out press releases on its latest topic of interest yet provide no means of identifying who the person behind the words might be. In effect, the media are muzzled as it consistently declines to comment beyond what is in a press release.

Then we have those who are trying to find a half way house. At least in the short term. For example, I met with Aneel Bhusri, co-founder and co-CEO Workday last week. He quizzed me about how SAP has developed its blogger program since Workday wishes to build upon its recent successful analyst day. The same week I received a similar inquiry from another cloud vendor

It was telling that Mr Bhusri said while the company wants to give as much freedom as possible to people like myself it's not quite ready to let someone as forthright as myself loose on a conference floor without some supervision. I get that. But I also sense something else going on.

The dislocation that cloud computing has caused established vendors is opening up a new window of opportunity for buyers to assess the value they get from solutions. Even our most sensitive data seems destined to go into cloud based solutions. Among these vendors, we often see far more openness than is usually associated with software suppliers. Open pricing is the norm, public support sites are springing up and vendor managed but not controlled blogs are becoming commonplace.

I regularly receive email telling me where one or other cloud vendor is doing well or failing. At times I wonder whether the people sending these emails are looking for them to become part of the public discourse. I doubt that I am alone.

In the background we see some vendors picking up on the old Oracle trick of publicly skewing information in their favor for marketing campaigns I view as increasingly hysterical. Michael Krigsman assumes:

The day [SAP INfluencer Summit day 3] began with SAP going on the offensive against NetSuite, even though SAP did not name the competitor explicitly. SAP accused NetSuite of misrepresenting facts in a recent anti-SAP marketing campaign related to total cost of ownership.This exchange is significant because it may signal the start of a shift from SAP as complacent, sleeping giant to more nimble street fighter. Whether this healthy change continues remains to be seen.

Just to be clear, I have no clue which side is right or wrong in this marketing dispute. In response to pointed questioning, NetSuite’s CEO, Zach Nelson, personally assured me that his company’s facts are correct, while SAP defends its position with equal vigor.

I think Michael's over reaching. The Business ByDesign calculator NetSuite used was way out of date and should not have been in the public domain. That's SAP's problem at the time NetSuite drew comparison. On the other hand I can't reconcile what NetSuite was saying about cost against what its customers tell me. It remains an open question to which I have yet to receive a convincing answer. Go figure? More to the point (and I have had many discussions with SAP on this topic), SAP won't engage in the same tactics as its competition so to make the 'nimble street fighter' analogy in the public discourse is a long stretch. In private? That's a different matter. SAP fumes at this kind of thing just like any other vendor but will find its own way of attacking the market.

All of which leads me towards wondering whether the software industry is about to get yet another reality check. The more that vendors act stridently in attacking competition the more you have to wonder what they've got to hide. Think I'm wrong? Check how US government spokespeople are accusing WikiLeaks instead of dealing with the problems the leaks expose.

Those vendors that go about their business more quietly tend to have far less unwelcome attention brought to themselves. Perhaps that's what Mr Bhusri and others are really after. Just enough attention to help it going forward but not so much that whatever its weaknesses end up taken out of context because in truth that's what happens a lot of the time.

As we think about what the New Year might bring, my hope is that vendors of all stripes will seek to be more open, more transparent and disclosing. Experience to date suggests that when that path is followed, buyers feel far better informed, empowered and willing to give the benefit of the doubt when things inevitably go wrong. It's not a slam dunk because as we have seen time and again, sentiment can swing wildly.

Does that mean they all get a free pass from people like myself? Far from it but at least we have the means to contextualize the whole rather than the parts we like or dislike.

Of one thing I am certain; WIkiLeaks has shone a public light on issues that many might have suspected but few could prove. Regardless of your feelings about that organization we are seeing some uncomfortable truths that will surely demand action that make governments more accountable. The enterprise apps business is not so different. What matters now is how the enterprise vendors respond.

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