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Business Technology: A New Era For Software

I've never really understood the "Bill Gates vs. Larry Ellison" matchup that periodically mesmerizes and titillates some publications, but it's particularly relevant now to compare their philosophies on two issues: first, whom they call or think of as stupid, and why; and second, how they internalize their customers' willingness to endure relentless pain and be treated like crap.

While I couldn't find a specific case of Ellison calling his customers stupid, he's nevertheless gone to great lengths in his public pronouncements to reveal his contempt and disdain for their desires to have products that meet their needs and that are priced in a way that reflects a fair exchange of value rather than merely a distinct and unyielding advantage to Oracle. At gatherings of Oracle users, he lectures customers on how they should be happy with an enormously expensive software product that delivers, say, 80% of what they want; he ridicules their desire to have Linux included in Oracle's product plans; and he seems endlessly frustrated with customers' unwillingness to buy bushels of Oracle applications just because of the trivial nitpick that those products often don't deliver what customers need to achieve.

It's been a while since this bit of self-loathing tastelessness first came out, but in case we're ever allowed to vote for TV shows that should be scrapped, it bears a second look:

"We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."

--"Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher, during a show that aired shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, proving that being a spewer of empty reflections on moral equivalence is no impediment to a career in trashy TV. True to his gutless form, Maher later said his remarks were misinterpreted and taken out of context, and that he has been, is, and always will be this country's most ardent supporter of our military forces.
--Bob Evans

Farther up the Pacific coast, Mr. Gates generally reserves the label of stupid for employees and members of the media, and it should be noted that the frequency of such incidents seems to have declined in the past few years. Whether that's due to a broadness of vision that often comes with the onset of middle age or to some other factor isn't clear. What is perfectly clear is that Gates--while still being ferociously protective of Microsoft's reputation and image--has again accurately gauged an inexorable shift in the mood of the buying public and is undertaking a massive effort to reshape his company to reflect that new, customer-focused reality. He now seems to be unshakably committed to confronting head-on the question of software flaws with higher standards and better quality, rather than more patches and philosophical deflections. And he has spoken in the language of leadership by rightly summarizing that while this new Microsoft initiative is indeed very much about security, it's also about a great deal more than that as well; thus, his idea of trustworthy software, itself a part of the grander vision of trustworthy computing.

Surely, the hardboiled among us could scream, "What the hell took him so long?" and that screamer could make a pretty legitimate case. But at this point, that's water under the goose's back, or spilled milk under the bridge; it's not really relevant. Rather, as spelled out clearly in our lead news story by senior editor George V. Hulme, the relevance lies in Gates' decision to send a lightning bolt through his entire company to electrify its thinking, change behavior, raise standards for quality, and dramatically shift priorities toward making the stuff right the first time, rather than perfecting the art of the patch or workaround.

In so doing, Gates has thrown down a challenge to the entire enterprise software industry, one that could be spoken by every enterprise software vendor. That collective industrywide challenge seems to be this: For too long, we have made products that foist too much complexity onto customers, that have too many bugs, that turn our problems into their problems, that continually give them good reason to regard all of us with cynicism and distrust. For too long, we have caused pain and discomfort, and then treated the symptoms rather than the disease; for too long, we have mistaken their tolerance of our mediocre performance for loyalty; for too long, we have shirked our responsibility to make their lives easier and have focused instead on making our development projects simpler and less expensive; for too long we have said, "They're addicted and can't quit; what are they going to do, just throw my stuff out?"

A long time ago, a guy in a movie opened a window and screamed that he was mad as hell and wasn't going to take it anymore. It was great cinema. Today, in the real world, businesses of all stripes are saying the same thing about software. Any software company that refuses to acknowledge that new reality is, well, stupid. And on a fast track to disaster.

Bob Evans

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