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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.
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].

Editor's Choice
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Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing