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01:38 PM

Business Technology: Think About The Customer

Collaborative business is coming, and Web services can be a huge factor in making that happen. But Bob Evans wonders if it wouldn't be nice if at least one of the three big vendors behind Web services--Sun, IBM, and Microsoft--stopped the ''only one of us will survive!'' positioning and instead took steps to ensure customers that its technologies will work wonderfully with those of the other two?

Ah, competition. From sports to natural selection to elections to college admissions to which 5-pound bag of potato chips has the lowest price this week, it's a dynamic that runs deeply throughout almost every element of our culture, our business world, and our daily lives. Many people believe it makes us better or sharper or even more open-minded and fair; others see it as an un-couth remnant of our distant jutting-forehead past when he with the biggest club got the choicest hunk of wooly mammoth.

The business-technology field has seen an astoundingly diverse range of competitive battles, some mythic and profound ("There will never be a need for anyone to have a PC in their home"), some a tad obtuse (was the concept of windowing really born at Xerox PARC?), and some rather silly (dot-matrix printer shootouts?). Customers, of course, almost always benefit from such may-the-best-thing-win contests, and it would be hard to argue that the remarkable pace of innovation that has been the hallmark of this industry would have been as rapid had it not been spurred by relentless competition.

"A federal judge has ruled that Zacarias Moussaoui, the sole person charged in the Sept. 11 attacks, may not have access to classified prosecution evidence about the aviation security system because it might end up in the hands of terrorists 'intent on attacking civil aviation.' . . . Court-appointed lawyers for Mr. Moussaoui, 34, a Muslim from France who has been described by officials as the '20th hijacker' intended for the Sept. 11 attacks, should not be allowed to represent himself because of mental illness. 'For Mr. Moussaoui to proceed without counsel could be fatal,' the lawyers said in reference to the death penalty he faces. 'Mr. Moussaoui's ideology appears to be interlaced with serious psychopathology, the nature of which is unclear.'"

-- From a June 13 story by Philip Shenon in The New York Times

But we're at the onset of a particular type of head-to-head competition that seems directed toward less benefit for customers, rather than more. It's the emergent field of Web services, where Sun's Open Net Environment, Microsoft's .Net, and IBM's WebSphere appear to be lining up for one of those otherworldly battles where all three get locked in a big cage with maces, brass knuckles, and chains, but only one combatant walks out, claiming all the world as its rightful territory.

I want to emphasize again that I love competition; it's indispensable to progress, innovation, and success in business, particularly where rapidly evolving technology is involved. But while this ideology-driven fight to the death might be great for the winner, is it a good thing for customers? Does the bitter head-butting now taking place among those three vendors reflect the world in which customers currently operate, and into which they're planning to move? Or will customers see it as yet one more unknown variable--and a big, hairy, ugly one to boot--to toss into the already complex equation of how to achieve greater success through collaborative business?

What if, instead of staging this like Gamera Meets Godzilla Meets Monster X, one of these companies took a different tack and made it a priority for its stuff to work easily and effectively with the other companies' stuff? What if the customer, instead of having to sit at ringside and get splattered by blood and spit before knowing which way to turn, could bypass the mess and go with somebody who's seeing the world as it actually is--heterogeneous, multiplatform, multivendor--rather than as a particular combatant would like it to be? Wouldn't that give customers more flexibility, less time pressure, and more confidence that they're not being boxed into something they've sworn to avoid? Haven't we all heard loud and clear from business-technology managers that they don't want vendors making their lives more difficult by forcing them to make choices too quickly or against their wishes?

The good news is that more companies are buying into the idea that interweaving their flow of knowledge and information with customers' and suppliers' knowledge isn't just a good thing but an essential element for success. No doubt, Web services can be a huge piece of turning that collaborative strategy into reality. I just hope the market doesn't become so jammed with superheated discussions of Java vs. XML and loosely coupled vs. tightly bound and "mine is great but theirs stinks, and if you buy theirs I can't promise it'll work very well or even at all with mine," that customers finally wish a pox upon all the houses and walk away from the whole concept. It wouldn't be the first time the disease proved more appealing than the cure.

I'm not expecting to hear harp music and see angels shooting love arrows while lambs lie down with lions and Roger Clemens gives Barry Bonds a hug. But it would be nice to see at least one of these industry-leading companies complement its competitive spirit with an enhanced level of customer-centered strategy.

Bob Evans
[email protected]

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