Oct 292014

One of the great market battles of the PC era was the fight between the ‘best of breed’ software designed to do specific jobs well — Lotus 123, WordPerfect, and Harvard Graphics — versus the bundled ‘suites’ led by Microsoft Office.

Bundled suites of programs offered a common platform and cheaper price over buying products individually.

In the case of Microsoft Office, it also helped that the software giant was aggressive in undercutting the market and leveraging the deals it had made with hardware vendors and system integrators.

The winner of that battle was Microsoft as it turned out customers preferred the cheaper price points of the bundled packages and the common software platform made it easier to share data across the applications.

In the cloud computing field that fight is happening again as Zach Nelson, CEO of Netsuite, describes; “I think the next battle is going to be the same battle that happened in the client-server world. Is it the best of breed cloud apps or is it the suite?”

Nelson believes the suite vision will win out, “the suite is going to win again for exactly the same reasons why the suite won in the client-server world — it’s very hard to synchronise data between applications.”

Given Netsuite’s business, as its name suggests, is in providing a suite of software it’s no surprising that Nelson believes their way of doing business will prevail. Those providing ‘best of breed’ stand alone cloud applications naturally disagree.

Chris Ridd, Australian General Manager of accounting service Xero, disagrees with Nelson’s view. “With cloud and open APIs you have the holy grail of interoperability,” Ridd says. “In the 1990s the open systems were too early and didn’t work as well as they do today.”

Ridd also points out that Xero has over 350 add on services, ” I don’t think any suite can deliver that” he says.

History is on Nelson’s side but it may be that in this case history doesn’t repeat as the technology has moved along and now stand alone apps are what the market wants.

Time will tell although its unlikely whichever prevails will have anything like the success and market domination of Microsoft Office during the PC era.

Oct 142014

Last week we looked at the way we organise information is changing in the face of exploding data volumes.

One of the consequences of the data explosion is that structured databases are beginning to struggle as information sources and business needs are becoming more diverse.

Yesterday, cloud Customer Relationship Management company Salesforce announced their Wave analytics product which the company says “with its schema-free architecture, data no longer has to be pre-sorted or organized in some narrowly defined manner before it can be analyzed.”

The end of the database era

Salesforce’s move is interesting for a company whose success has been based upon structured databases to run its CRM and other services.

What the company’s move could be interpreted that the age of the database is over; that organising data is a fool’s errand as it becomes harder to sort and categorise the information pouring into businesses.

This was the theme at the previous week’s Splunk conference in Las Vegas where the company’s CTO, Todd Papaioannou, told Decoding The New Economy how the world is moving away from structured databases.

“We’re going through a sea change in the analytics space,” Papaioannou said. “What characterised the last thirty years was what I call the ‘schema write’ era; big databases that have a schema where you have to load the data into that schema then transform before you can ask questions of it.”

Breaking the structure

The key with programs like Salesforce and other database driven products like SAP and Oracle is that both the data structures — the schema — and the questions are largely pre-configured. With the unstructured model it’s Google-like queries on the stored data that matters.

For companies like Salesforce this means a fundamental change to their underlying product and possibly their business models as well.

It may well be that Salesforce, a company that defined itself by the ‘No Software’ slogan is now being challenged by the No Database era.

Paul travelled to San Francisco and Las Vegas as a guest of Salesforce and Splunk respectively

Oct 012014

A few days ago I asked if Windows 9 would be Microsoft’s last desktop operating system.

Yesterday the company partially answered the question by announcing the next version will be named Windows 10 which conveniently skips version nine.

Skipping around numbers isn’t unusual for Microsoft, most famously Word skipped from version two to six just to overtake competitor WordPerfect in the late 1990s.

Windows itself has gone 3.0, 3.1, 3.11, 95, 98, ME, XP, Vista, 7 and 8 in the past — that’s without mentioning the Windows NT family — so jumping to Windows 10 doesn’t detract from any logic in the Microsoft’s naming system.

The key point from Microsoft’s announcement is the business focus along with the continuation of Windows 8’s unified experience across PCs, smartphones and games consoles that has proved less than successful.

One area where Microsoft has conceded defeat is in the battle for a Start button with Windows 10, one of the biggest irritants upgrading users found with the new operating system and one of the reasons why many users chose the older Windows 7 software when buying a PC.

How the Start button will work on Windows Phone remains to be seen although Microsoft seem committed to the ‘One Windows’ vision despite its technological and marketplace difficulties.

Another interesting development with the new product is the Windows Insider Program, billed as an ‘open collaborative development effort to change the way Windows is built and delivered’.

Back in the old days this was called a beta program where testers were invited to try out new software to test the product and fine tune user experiences. At least it shows Microsoft are embracing the language, if not the spirit, of the collaborative economy.

Microsoft have released a YouTube video Introducing Windows 10 with Windows Vice President Joe Belfiore outlining the features of the new system.

Whether Windows 10 is enough to shore up the declining fortunes of the company’s Windows division and Joe’s job will be a key question for analysts and industry watchers over the next three years.

Sep 162014

Yesterday Microsoft confirmed the rumours that it would buy Minecraft developer Mojang for 2.5 billion dollars.

Following the announcement, Mojang founder Markus Persson — aka Notch — wrote a touching blog post on his leaving the company he founded.

The business had become too big and the demands of Minecraft’s legion of fans were taking their toll; it was time for Persson to move on to keep his sanity.

“If I ever accidentally make something that seems to gain traction, I’ll probably abandon it immediately.”

For all the hubris we hear from technology company founders and CEOs, it’s those like Persson who probably will end up making the most difference to the world.


Sep 072014

Unsurprisingly the hype ahead of Tuesday’s media announcement by Apple is reaching a crescendo, with the consensus being that a smart watch will be the day’s main announcement.

The constant stream of targeted leaks by Apple to friendly outlets is quite tiring, however one thing that will be fascinating if all the stories are true is the software the device will run.

As Microsoft have discovered, the idea of running the same operating system across all devices just doesn’t work.

While how users interact with the devices will be the main factor, the most immediate problem will be power. If Apple Insider’s report that prototypes need to be recharged twice a day is true, then the limitations of smaller batteries are going to be considerable and software is going to have to be much more stingy with power usage.

The other big challenge for the iWatch, if that’s what it’s called, is the entire global watch market is a tiny fraction of the smartphone industry so expectations Apple’s new product will replace smartphones and tablets as a huge growth driver for the company are probably misguided.

So it’s good for Apple and its acolytes that the iPhone6 will probably be announced as well. If this has the features expected, then its likely to give the company’s slowing smartphone sales a boost.

Regardless of what’s announced on Wednesday, Apple does have the luxury of being one of the most profitable and richest companies on the planet. if a smartwatch is the major new product they have the resources and time to finesse the product and its software.


Aug 282014

“Apple lives in an ecosystem,” Steve Jobs told the 1997 MacWorld conference. “It helps other partners and it needs the help of other partners.”

A few minutes later Jobs unveiled Apple’s deal with Microsoft, much to the disgust of many of the company’s true believers in the audience – something not helped by Bill Gates appearing on video midway through the presentation.

“We have to let go of the idea that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose;” said Jobs after the booing died down.

I was reminded of Jobs’ and Gates’ deal when talking to Pat Gelsinger, the CEO of virtualisation software company VM Ware at their annual VM World conference in San Francisco this week.

Gelsinger was discussing the myriad deals VM Ware has made with companies that are their superficially their rivals as markets radically change. The company has even gone as far to embrace the open source Open Stack that was originally set up as competition to VM Ware’s proprietary technology.

“The idea of frenemies – or co-competition – isn’t new to the IT industry.” Said Gelsinger, “as we are in this period that we’ve called the tectonic shifts that are underway.”

“All of us need to be somewhat careful about who’s our friends and who’s our enemies as we go through that period and be as nice as we can to everybody because who’s our friends and who’s our enemies in six months or twelve months could change a whole lot.”

That lesson has been harsh in the IT industry as various unstoppable businesses have found the market has shifted rapidly against them. A process that’s accelerating as cloud computing changes the software industry.

“I always quip that ten years ago or fifteen years ago Sun would have been buying Oracle. Those shifts can occur quite rapidly,” Gelsinger says.

VM Ware itself is on the brunt of one of those shifts as its core business of creating virtual services in company’s data centres is being disrupted by cloud computing companies like Amazon, Google and – ironically – Microsoft.

Adapting to that changing market is the key task for Gelsinger and VM Ware’s management team, “our philosophy has been about doing the right thing that technology enables us to do.” Gesliner states, “do the right things for our customers and enable the ecosystem to join us on the journey.”

For companies like VM Ware and Microsoft no-one predicted that one of their biggest threats would come from an online book retailer, yet Amazon Web Services has upended the entire software industry.

The challenges for VM Ware today or Apple nearly two decades ago are being repeated in many other industries as competitors appear from unexpected directions, which is why it’s important not to ignore and sometimes co-operate with your competitors.

We shouldn’t also ignore the other main reason why companies like Apple, Microsoft and, possibly, VM Ware have survived massive market shifts over time – a deep and loyal customer base.

Understanding and responding to your customers’ needs is possibly the greatest management skill needed in every business today. Are you listening to what your market is telling you?

Paul travelled to VM World in San Francisco as a guest of VM Ware

Picture of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates via Joi Ito on Flickr

Jul 302014
soldier pawns on a chess board

This week I’m in New York to attend the BlackBerry Security Summit, more of which I’ll write about later although this story for Technology Spectator covers much of the news from the day.

BlackBerry is struggling to find relevance after losing its way when Apple and Android smashed their business model of providing secure, reliable and email friendly phones.

Now in post Snowden world, BlackBerry under new CEO John Chen is looking to rebuild the company’s fortunes on its strengths in security.

One of the aspects Chen’s team is emphasising is the simplicity of their software. Dan Dodge, who heads BlackBerry’s QNX embedded devices division says their operating system has a 100,000 lines of code as opposed to hundreds of millions in Windows and Android.

That weakness in the established software packages is something illustrated in today’s story about a verification problem in Android due to reuse of old code from another older product.

Simplicity is strength is Dodge’s message and that idea could probably be applied to more than software.

In the complex times we live in, simplicity could be the key to success.