What isn’t sexy enterprise software?

In Why enterprise software isn’t sexy Robert Scoble writes about Bill Gates’ frustration with the lack of coverage given by blogs and reporters to enterprise software:

Even in the Wall Street Journal, and you think, oh, this is the paper they’re going to tell me about business computing; no, it’s all about consumer computing.


In enterprises all over the world, there must be millions of programmers writing enterprise software and untold others interacting with them. However, if actually understanding the scope and depth of enterprise software were to be a requirement for blogging about the subject, there would be a frighteningly miniscule fraction qualified to do so. Anyone who hasn’t been around a decade or so would be immediately ineligible, for lacking all important historical perspective if nothing else.

In turn, those who have been around often expediently erect walls of authority and accuse others of being unable to understand the complexity of creating and maintaining enterprise software.

There’s of course plenty of confusion about what’s usable, useful and sexy, but those who defend what amounts to inherent complexity of enterprise software support an underlying assumption: it’s acceptable that people who are daily exposed to high interface and interaction values inherent in TV, movies, advertising, magazines and gadgets in the consumer sphere are somehow rendered incapable of expecting and appreciating the same within the walls of the enterprise from 9 to 5.

This is understandable in that while consumer consumption is about personal choice, enterprise workers almost never get to choose or, just as importantly, personally pay for the software they use. If they did, we surely would not have had, for example, ghastly “enterprise-grade” mobile device software that has been “servicing” the industry for over a decade…until the birth of the iPhone.

It’s a daily spectacle to watch iPhone toting CEOs telling their IT departments to make their phone work with their company’s enterprise systems. The only ones who may not appreciate the irony in the world’s biggest maker of business management software introducing SAP CRM 2007 to run on the iPhone – the sexiest consumer device around – are in fact the defenders of enterprise legacy. SAP senior vice president Bob Stutz:

“The iPhone has become such a popular thing…Everybody wants the ease of use of the iPhone.”

The New York Times quotes Stutz saying that “SAP decided to introduce the iPhone software ahead of programs for other devices at the request of its sales people, saying they prefer using iPhones to the other devices.”

We know what’s sexy in the consumer world. I have no doubt that given half a chance consumers who go to work from 9 to 5 in the enterprise and those who access enterprise software from outside would want radically better and sexy software just as well.

Instead, this is what they get:

  • Legacy mainframe apps whose caretakers are unwilling or unable to abstract the UI through a rich and flexible web interface to hide complexity, what some call “incremental SOA,” aren’t sexy.
  • Strategists who regard scalability as mere capacity enhancement without understanding who uses their software and how aren’t sexy.
  • Those who don’t understand that iTunes Store, Google or Amazon are some of the largest enterprise applications on the planet despite supporting consumer-level access aren’t sexy.
  • Enterprises who compel users to download multi-megabyte, single-OS, thick-client software for tasks that even the iPhone’s web browser could handle without much fuss aren’t sexy.
  • Those who advocated running the enterprise through the desktop by devaluing the web browser for half a decade, even if they admit it now, aren’t sexy.
  • Businesses that still think that subjecting their customers to endless paper and digital form filling is a sexy form of information gathering and circulation aren’t sexy.
  • Financial enterprises that believe in creating hyper-efficient, but siloed loan origination systems without tightly coupling them to risk analysis systems, thereby writing off over $50 billion industrywide aren’t sexy.
  • Software architects who still have their business logic scattered all over UI objects, web pages and stored procedures aren’t sexy.
  • Those OS architects who neglected security at the altar of features and gave several hundred million users a decade-long agita aren’t sexy.
  • Those who believe the best way to bring “business intelligence” to executives and masses alike is through uninformative 3D dashboard gadgetry aren’t sexy.
  • Those who think UIs to end-points of enterprise service systems can be done by Soviet-era Bulgarian freight train engineers aren’t sexy.
  • Those who have convinced themselves that the user interface isn’t the application aren’t sexy.

So yes, Bill Gates is absolutely right that we all should pay far more attention to enterprise software. Only then will we learn just how much work is needed to strip away layers of mindless complexity in Microsoft’s own SharePoint, BizTalk and others, to finally render them…sexy.

5 thoughts on “What isn’t sexy enterprise software?

  1. Kontra, right on… I am really liking your posts. As always extremely astute. I had just gotten done writing about Scobel’s post a little earlier today over at ChangeForge.

    What’s not sexy about making a good clip of money while making a company run better and helping customers all the while!


    Keep up the good work!

  2. Pingback: The Cave » Blog Archive » ‘Sexy’ Enterprise Software

  3. Great article. I’m not an IT person, and I frequently feel like the IT people consider us the enemy. The article nails it that the UI on Enterprise software is awful. Much of it requires the user to memorize code words instead of using pull down menus. I understand fill in the blank for information, but when there are something like six codes, how tough would it be to program a pull down menu?
    I work at a college, and when accessing my classes to print rosters, I have to go to class roster, select the semester (the pull down menu only has the current semester in the pull down menu (why do you have to have a pull down menu when there’s only one choice?) and if I want a semester other than the current one, I have to enter the start and end dates of the semester from memory (No Spring 2006 allowed, it’s got to be 1/14/2006 to 5/24/2006, and if the two dates don’t encompass the entire semester, or are so wide that they encompass more than one semester, it claims I didn’t have any classes in the period.) Then, after selecting my class, I can print the roster. Now here’s the thing. I teach seven classes, and after I print the roster, the program kicks me back to the top menu, and I have to select Class Roster, and go through all the steps again, instead of being able to go to class roster once and print all my classes.
    Sorry for the rant, but I see this same type of lousy UI in businesses every place, and the IT people just tell us we’re too stupid to operate the system. Most Enterprise level software stinks, and will continue to stink because the CEOs, Vice Presidents, etc., don’t have to work with it. They have somebody else do their keyboarding, and the IT people don’t care what the average schmoe at the cash register or in accounting thinks.

  4. Vinnie, I don’t think people who want “sexy” enterprise software are necessarily after just better UI, even if they can’t quite articulate it.

    I almost never hear people get excited about enterprise software, but the same people often forward emails about how they discovered some site on the web that, to them, is a delight to use and they want you to share their excitement. That’s sexy.

    I think we can agree that reverse engineering that “sexy” in systems design terms is the goal. And that (visual) UI (re)design without process/systems design is what’s gotten us into this mess to begin with. But it is not a matter of either/or; sexiness lies precisely in the integration/intersection.

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