Commentary
4/16/2009
06:58 PM

Global CIO: Tech Vendors' Secrecy Hinders Innovation

The fear of exposing future product plans to competitors now seems to outweigh the drive to give customers the information they need to develop thought-out plans for IT deployments.



Tech vendors love to talk up innovation and technology leadership, but for all of their achievements in these areas, they've also offered some spotty performance from time to time. Consider their support for mobile enterprise applications and smartphones: Two-thirds of companies are deploying or planning to deploy mobile enterprise apps, a recent InformationWeek Analytics survey tells us. So clearly most CIOs believe they can gain profound productivity, cost-saving, and communication benefits by providing their mobile workforces with smartphone access to customer data, sales reports, and business analytics.

But come back with me in time seven months to our last InformationWeek 500 Conference, where CIOs and IT managers were invited to join discussion groups on various topics. The group that gathered for the enterprise-mobility discussion was among the biggest, and the prevailing sentiment was that since vendors were not coming across with timely and credible and detailed information on their mobile plans, the attendees (a.k.a. IT buyers!) would take matters into their own hands and look for some help from their peers.

The discussion varied, but with the market awash in so many viable but incompatible mobile platforms -- BlackBerry, iPhone, Nokia, Palm, Windows Mobile, etc. -- the CIOs kept coming back to the question of whether they should try to support multiple platforms within among their mobile workforces. And if so, how could they make that work?

Yet the industry's two most important enterprise application vendors, Oracle and SAP, are just now starting to talk about strategies for helping customers support multiple types of smartphones in their organizations, so that their mobile workforces can get to data in back-end Oracle and SAP systems. Their approaches in the past have been piecemeal: Oracle developed a Siebel CRM app for BlackBerry, SAP announced a plan to develop an SAP CRM app for BlackBerry (still not out yet), Oracle put up a few applications for its business intelligence systems at Apple's online store, and SAP released middleware for a Windows Mobile client to talk to an SAP back-end system.

We've recently seen some signs of progress: Last month, SAP teamed with Sybase on a multidevice support plan, and Oracle recently told me it's enhancing its Fusion Application Development Framework for multidevice support. And while these are certainly important early steps, where were these strategies seven months ago when, as proven at our own little sample at the InformationWeek 500 Conference, the customer need was so clearly evident?

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For all the billions of dollars the big software companies invest in enterprise solutions, they've somehow managed to miss out so far on a pretty big opportunity here -- I mean, it's not as if the smartphone market just sneaked up on everyone. Maybe those enterprise software firms were stuck in the paralysis of analysis, spending precious time worrying about which platform to develop for first, and trying to figure out how many different platforms customers would be willing to put up with, and hoping that integration would somehow not prove to be the rat's nest it has become.

Either way, it hasn't been a shining example of brilliance on their parts: Customers need better solutions more urgently than before, the thorny issues aren't going away, and the threat of getting Amazoned (remember that one?) by a feisty newcomer -- or even an inspired oldster -- becomes more real with each passing month.



What Happened To Tech Road Maps?
A few days ago, I got an e-mail from someone within the IT department of a very large city who had read our March 30 cover story, "Business Gone Mobile." This city is considering a substantial deployment of iPhones to city employees. His question to me: "Does Apple intend to address the encryption issue on the iPhone soon? We have been putting off the deployment of iPhones due to the lack of encryption on the device. We currently only deploy BlackBerrys and love the control over them in the event they are lost or stolen."

I asked if he'd talked to Apple. His answer: "Yes, I have tried Apple; they aren’t very good with giving up information to anyone."

It's almost pitiful, isn't it? What happened to the concept of technology road maps? I wonder if the fear of exposing future product plans to competitors now outweighs the drive to give customers the information they need to develop thought-out plans for IT deployments.

Oracle, meanwhile, has become so obsessed with stamping out SAP and reaching its goal of 50% profit margins through a growing intake of maintenance fees (a topic it brings up in every quarterly meeting with analysts) that there's been some criticism that customers' need-to-know information has become a lower priority.

Rusty Gaston, CIO of a midsize company called Santa Fe Natural Tobacco, told me during an interview for a story I wrote earlier this year on software maintenance fees that she wasn't happy about the lack of details on Oracle's upcoming Fusion applications. "It was hard to get any clarity," she told me.

SAP has had its own challenges in getting in sync with customers on where it's headed. Take software as a service, which most companies are already using or are planning to adopt in some form in the near future, according to an InformationWeek Analytics research study. Is SAP's Business ByDesign SaaS ERP suite going to be a broadly available product, or is it headed for the scrap heap? Because you folks out there -- our readers and SAP's customers -- are deeply interested in whether you'll have that platform option down the road, I've been trying to figure this out for months.

Yet, SAP executives never give a direct answer. I understand the need for companies to keep certain things quiet, but SAP has talked quite a bit about Business ByDesign SaaS ERP -- it's just that when it does, it doesn't say anything of consequence, leaving customers as mystified as ever. My guess is we'll know the answer to this question pretty soon, but only after IT managers at midsize companies have spent nearly two years wondering whether that glitzy Times Square product launch in September 2007 was just an off-Broadway production about a road to nowhere. Is that any way to run a global IT company?

Tech vendors share many of the same goals as their customers: grow profits, keep the most competitive plans secret, and be flexible enough to abandon a product plan or strategy if the winds start to shift. Yet these are unique times, and businesses need their tech vendors, more than ever, to be their partners. That means listening, anticipating, answering, and yes, occasionally taking some risks whose ROI might need to be a bit more flexible than usual.

GlobalCIO Mary Hayes Weier is editor at large for InformationWeek.

To find out more about Mary Hayes Weier, please visit her page.

For more Global CIO perspectives, check out Global CIO,
or write to Mary at [email protected].

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