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2/8/2002
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Business Technology: Time To Repair Relationships

He had a voice Orson Welles would have envied (not to mention, in the wake of the Super Bowl, the stentorian tones of the guy who was the original voice of NFL Films, dubbed by some "The Voice of God"--the first reader who sends this guy's name to my address below will win a nice InformationWeek tchotchke). He was at Gate 4 of a huge airport, and his soliloquy on the evolution of enterprise applications, delivered into a headset attachment to his mobile phone, was easily audible at Gate 98 and probably out on the tarmac as well. I tried humming loudly to myself, I listened at full volume to the menu of options on my company's voice-mail system, I went into the men's room, but to no avail--his mellifluous tones cut through everything. This, clearly, was something I was meant to hear.

"Users don't need to know--in fact, they really don't want to know--about the integration of their applications under the user interface," he said. "They don't care if it's EAI or middleware or interlinked suites or a portal or whatever. They just want to have access to the applications they need without having to sign in and out a bunch of times as they move from CRM to ERP to supply chain."

Warming to the subject, he boomed on: "Speaking of portals, this whole business is moving to--and I'm not sure if this is the right word, but I think the concept works--portlets, or mini-portals that steer a user through the complicated stuff that should be hidden from them anyway."

I had to think about that one a bit--simple, customized portals tuned to what will make the user experience most productive and valuable. Could he be on to something? But I was drawn out of my reflections and back into his lecture as the phrase, "Let me tell you about a hypothesis I've developed" resounded across and through my eardrum. "Business software companies today have to do one of two things: They have to sell their existing products to a wider base of customers, or they have to sell the same amount of the same things to existing customers while also convincing them to buy new things." That one, I must say, undercut some of the credibility he'd engendered with his portlet idea. Not because it isn't true, but because he was at a point when he finally seemed to be getting to the heart of the matter--delivering value to customers--when he reverted back to industrythink and tried to explain it all in the context of the manifest destiny of software companies.

Portlets or some similar idea might be the most intriguing insight anybody's had in a long time, or they might be another goofy construct that diverts attention from the real issue: unleashing the full value of enterprise applications by making it simple for customers to use them to extract data, information, and perhaps even knowledge and insights that couldn't otherwise be pulled together.

Either way, at this metaphorical fork in the philosophical road, he veered down the wrong path and positioned this as an inevitable outcome because, after all, software companies have to sell more stuff, and the continuum from separate apps to integrated hodgepodge to suite to portal to portlet to whatever might come next gives software companies a never-ending flow of new things to foist on customers under the premise that This New Product, once and for all, will pull everything together and Solve All Your Problems.

Despite his impressive oratory, I think the customers of the world no longer see it that way--they want the discussion to center rigorously on their issues, their problems, and their challenges rather than indirectly on the software industry's need for recurrent revenue streams. The business-technology field has bombarded customers with buzzwords and half-words and acronyms and vaporwords to the point that they've had more than enough; the trust, the patience have been exhausted. I used similar language a couple of weeks ago while talking about the frustration and simmering anger among customers with regard to poor quality and mismatched expectations. The airport orator should be a reminder to us all that business-technology customers expect their software partners to sharply increase the quality of not only their products but also their relationships with those customers.

Bob Evans
Editor-in-Chief
bevans@cmp.com

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