Why enterprise software isn’t sexy

Bill Gates seems to bemoan the fact that enterprise software isn’t covered by blogs and journalists. Instead, he points out, that we like talking about consumer software.

It’s a good point, especially since business software like that from Oracle, SAP, Microsoft etc makes a TON of money.

So, why is it so?

Well, how many people in the world actually buy business software? For instance, back when I worked at NEC, a company that had more than 100,000 employees back then (more employees than work at Microsoft, actually) we used SAP. But I didn’t have any say in that matter. Some CIO somewhere else made that decision and forced us all to use SAP. That doesn’t exactly make us warm and fuzzy about the computer sitting in front of us on the desk.

But that doesn’t really explain it totally.

Instead, let’s look at the business of journalism or even of blogging. We’re paid to deliver page views. Advertisers call it “CPM” (cost per thousand viewers). Now, what’s going to get more of you interested? Consumer software that you actually have a role in adopting or purchasing or enterprise software where some CIO somewhere else in your organization decides on? I know that when I talk about enterprise software the numbers of viewers just don’t show up. So, tech bloggers quickly learn that if they talk about enterprise software they aren’t going to get many advertising impressions.

There are a variety of CIO blogs, though, I wonder which one is the best one?

Don’t feel too sad for Gates, though. He’s laughing all the way to the bank. Turns out those CIOs buy a lot of software.

Any of you have any ideas on how to make business software sexy?

I wonder what the Enterprise Irregulars think about this? (They are a group of bloggers who cover business software).

180 thoughts on “Why enterprise software isn’t sexy

  1. Consumer software can be sexy because we interact with it. Good consumer software excites, engages and delights us because we’re in a relationship with it.

    Enterprise software will never be sexy because we don’t directly, personally interact with it.

    But behind every sexy consumer software solution is ten times as much substance (and value) in quiet, enabling, “just do it” enterprise software.

    Don’t sweat it! It’s supposed to be this way.

  2. Consumer software can be sexy because we interact with it. Good consumer software excites, engages and delights us because we’re in a relationship with it.

    Enterprise software will never be sexy because we don’t directly, personally interact with it.

    But behind every sexy consumer software solution is ten times as much substance (and value) in quiet, enabling, “just do it” enterprise software.

    Don’t sweat it! It’s supposed to be this way.

  3. I’m not sure it’s possible to make enterprise software “sexy”. If by “sexy” we mean engaging, easy-to-use, stuff like that.

    There’s been a whole bunch of discussion on this, but little addressing of your actual question(s), which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I suppose.

    Why isn’t “enterprise” software sexy? I’d submit that the principal answer may lies in the source: enterprises. It takes a large company to build a large system, which in pretty much every case I’m aware of will drive every ounce of passion, individuality and flair right out.

    Companies like Fog Creek produce sexy software (I enjoyed attending the London leg of Joel’s World Tour last month) but I doubt that they could produce anything near as attractive were they 10,000 strong with eight layers of management and distributed over several locations and timezones. We just don’t have the organisational tools to do that yet, if we ever will.

    The current (and future?) generations of enterprise-ware will scale: that’s their differentiating factor. We can hope that they’ll work (mostly) reliably and that support and training will exist and that they won’t be so opaque that the purchasers incur significant risk through uninformed misuse.

    It could change, although I think it’s unlikely. A possible route might be through niche software providers along, to stick with the above example, the Fog Creek model, to make it easy to integrate their products with other similarly “sexy” instances, so that the enterprise can work on a great big sexy mash-up. The obvious barriers are (at least) twofold: first the sexy builders don’t have any particular business incentive to create an API and second, the interfaces are likely to need standardising, which can be a slow train to nowhere.

    But the thought that I might one day not have to put up with Lotus Notes (without quitting my current job, that is) makes me hope.

    And the rest of my family collapsing with flu made me miss Friday, which sounds to have been a blast. Durnit.

  4. I’m not sure it’s possible to make enterprise software “sexy”. If by “sexy” we mean engaging, easy-to-use, stuff like that.

    There’s been a whole bunch of discussion on this, but little addressing of your actual question(s), which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I suppose.

    Why isn’t “enterprise” software sexy? I’d submit that the principal answer may lies in the source: enterprises. It takes a large company to build a large system, which in pretty much every case I’m aware of will drive every ounce of passion, individuality and flair right out.

    Companies like Fog Creek produce sexy software (I enjoyed attending the London leg of Joel’s World Tour last month) but I doubt that they could produce anything near as attractive were they 10,000 strong with eight layers of management and distributed over several locations and timezones. We just don’t have the organisational tools to do that yet, if we ever will.

    The current (and future?) generations of enterprise-ware will scale: that’s their differentiating factor. We can hope that they’ll work (mostly) reliably and that support and training will exist and that they won’t be so opaque that the purchasers incur significant risk through uninformed misuse.

    It could change, although I think it’s unlikely. A possible route might be through niche software providers along, to stick with the above example, the Fog Creek model, to make it easy to integrate their products with other similarly “sexy” instances, so that the enterprise can work on a great big sexy mash-up. The obvious barriers are (at least) twofold: first the sexy builders don’t have any particular business incentive to create an API and second, the interfaces are likely to need standardising, which can be a slow train to nowhere.

    But the thought that I might one day not have to put up with Lotus Notes (without quitting my current job, that is) makes me hope.

    And the rest of my family collapsing with flu made me miss Friday, which sounds to have been a blast. Durnit.

  5. Herschel: please note that I don’t have advertising here (yet) and so, for me, I don’t really care about page views. But, let’s be clear about this: a post about Apple computer recently brought 10x more hits than the one yesterday, even though the one yesterday was talked about on lots of blogs and got to the top of TechMeme. The traffic doesn’t support your thesis that talking about Enterprise Software will generate good page views.

    In truth I bet it DOES generate great influence, though, because the few people who buy Enterprise Software weild so much buying power.

  6. Herschel: please note that I don’t have advertising here (yet) and so, for me, I don’t really care about page views. But, let’s be clear about this: a post about Apple computer recently brought 10x more hits than the one yesterday, even though the one yesterday was talked about on lots of blogs and got to the top of TechMeme. The traffic doesn’t support your thesis that talking about Enterprise Software will generate good page views.

    In truth I bet it DOES generate great influence, though, because the few people who buy Enterprise Software weild so much buying power.

  7. I explored the notion of why people who are exposed daily to high interface and interaction values inherent in TV, movies, advertising, magazines and gadgets in the consumer sphere are somehow supposed to be rendered incapable of expecting and appreciating the same within the walls of the enterprise from 9 to 5, with a dozen enterprise examples that aren’t sexy:

    What isn’t sexy enterprise software?

  8. I explored the notion of why people who are exposed daily to high interface and interaction values inherent in TV, movies, advertising, magazines and gadgets in the consumer sphere are somehow supposed to be rendered incapable of expecting and appreciating the same within the walls of the enterprise from 9 to 5, with a dozen enterprise examples that aren’t sexy:

    What isn’t sexy enterprise software?

  9. So, why is it so?

    For the same reason there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of magazines on interior decorating and design, and relatively few magazines covering say, bricks and mortar. Dramatic lighting is sexy; cinder blocks, not so much: YOU CAN’T SEE the cinder blocks once the building is built.

    Any of you have any ideas on how to make business software sexy?

    Hmmm. Do cinder blocks need to be sexy? Not really; they mostly need to be reliable and cheap. In fact, “sexy” might be the wrong thing to go for; you might want your business software to seem EXTREMELY RELIABLE, PREDICTABLE, DULL and COST-EFFECTIVE. Enterprise software is the accountant; consumer software is the receptionist.

    There’s also a desire to copy what other people are doing, to use tried-and-true industry standards, which is why ads for Microsoft SQL Server are always saying “look at all these other people using our software.” Note they are not trying to appeal to gearheads (they downplay emphasis on TPC-C & other benchmarks), and they’re not screaming about their new features. The overall message is one of solidness and robustness — “if our software is good enough for (name recognition massive application), it’s good enough for you.”

    There are “fashion trends” in business software but they tend to be slower and more low-key. Sticking with SQL Server as an example, there was a time it was considered a toy database, and “real” databases were in Oracle. Well that changed! The same thing is slowly happening with MySQL.

    Now if your goal is to sell more software (as opposed to just making it “sexy”), you should investigate why that kind of migration happens… My guess is that it has not so much to do with being “sexy”….

  10. So, why is it so?

    For the same reason there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of magazines on interior decorating and design, and relatively few magazines covering say, bricks and mortar. Dramatic lighting is sexy; cinder blocks, not so much: YOU CAN’T SEE the cinder blocks once the building is built.

    Any of you have any ideas on how to make business software sexy?

    Hmmm. Do cinder blocks need to be sexy? Not really; they mostly need to be reliable and cheap. In fact, “sexy” might be the wrong thing to go for; you might want your business software to seem EXTREMELY RELIABLE, PREDICTABLE, DULL and COST-EFFECTIVE. Enterprise software is the accountant; consumer software is the receptionist.

    There’s also a desire to copy what other people are doing, to use tried-and-true industry standards, which is why ads for Microsoft SQL Server are always saying “look at all these other people using our software.” Note they are not trying to appeal to gearheads (they downplay emphasis on TPC-C & other benchmarks), and they’re not screaming about their new features. The overall message is one of solidness and robustness — “if our software is good enough for (name recognition massive application), it’s good enough for you.”

    There are “fashion trends” in business software but they tend to be slower and more low-key. Sticking with SQL Server as an example, there was a time it was considered a toy database, and “real” databases were in Oracle. Well that changed! The same thing is slowly happening with MySQL.

    Now if your goal is to sell more software (as opposed to just making it “sexy”), you should investigate why that kind of migration happens… My guess is that it has not so much to do with being “sexy”….

  11. Funny, I read this blog post a couple of hours ago and re-read it after seeing all the noise from other bloggers.

    Robert, in my humble opinion unlike what you said “Instead, let’s look at the business of journalism or even of blogging. We’re paid to deliver page views.”

    I beg to differ. You are paid to create interesting, engaging and entertaining content.

    By doing that, you’ll get the page views. Which means if you created interesting, engaging and entertaining content about Enterprise Software, you’ll get page views.

    You made a career talking about a lot of Enterprise software with Microsoft or have you tried to forget that?

  12. Funny, I read this blog post a couple of hours ago and re-read it after seeing all the noise from other bloggers.

    Robert, in my humble opinion unlike what you said “Instead, let’s look at the business of journalism or even of blogging. We’re paid to deliver page views.”

    I beg to differ. You are paid to create interesting, engaging and entertaining content.

    By doing that, you’ll get the page views. Which means if you created interesting, engaging and entertaining content about Enterprise Software, you’ll get page views.

    You made a career talking about a lot of Enterprise software with Microsoft or have you tried to forget that?

  13. Wow, Robert, you really stirred up those Enterprise Software guys :p I think its amazing how many of them fell back on the old “its more complex than you realize, you just don’t understand” chestnut. Reminds me of all the old mainframe guys trying to defend their turf as everyone moved to personal computers. A change SHOULD be coming, and the old school IT/Enterprise guys are the first that should be put out of work.

  14. On your question about good blogs, you might try reading Keystones And Rivets. The guy who writes it, Paul Wallis, analyzes the whole business IT relationship in a way that as far as I can see is not only unique but easy to understand, and I come from a finance background. If you are skeptical, check out his posts on Alignment, EA and ERP. Speaking to a few tech experts I know, I’m told his stuff is fairly ground-breaking.

  15. Wow, Robert, you really stirred up those Enterprise Software guys :p I think its amazing how many of them fell back on the old “its more complex than you realize, you just don’t understand” chestnut. Reminds me of all the old mainframe guys trying to defend their turf as everyone moved to personal computers. A change SHOULD be coming, and the old school IT/Enterprise guys are the first that should be put out of work.

  16. On your question about good blogs, you might try reading Keystones And Rivets. The guy who writes it, Paul Wallis, analyzes the whole business IT relationship in a way that as far as I can see is not only unique but easy to understand, and I come from a finance background. If you are skeptical, check out his posts on Alignment, EA and ERP. Speaking to a few tech experts I know, I’m told his stuff is fairly ground-breaking.

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  18. I’ve only just started using enterprise software, and I agree it’s about the ugliest, clunky stuff I’ve ever seen. Yes, I’m glad it’s not going to fail, obviously, but would some UI thought make it fail? Can a company not attempt sexy and failproof, or is that not possible? Is it too much to ask that it not include a popup everytime I click an option? Must it look like hell? Is user experience so unimportant that it not even be a thought, not even warranting UI testing?

  19. I’ve only just started using enterprise software, and I agree it’s about the ugliest, clunky stuff I’ve ever seen. Yes, I’m glad it’s not going to fail, obviously, but would some UI thought make it fail? Can a company not attempt sexy and failproof, or is that not possible? Is it too much to ask that it not include a popup everytime I click an option? Must it look like hell? Is user experience so unimportant that it not even be a thought, not even warranting UI testing?

  20. Enterprise software works. CIOs evaluate it on those terms. What sells enterprise software is the list of features the software offers.

    I think the “sexyness” problem comes in when the end users of the application try to actually get work done using it. Enterprise software vendors put considerably more thought and resources into developing the sales-driving target feature set than they do an intuitive interface with a well thought out work flow.

    Rather than pointing fingers at vendors, perhaps we should look to the CIO. If they were demanding intuitive software that not only performed a task but actually made the task easier to perform, vendors would respond in kind.

  21. Enterprise software works. CIOs evaluate it on those terms. What sells enterprise software is the list of features the software offers.

    I think the “sexyness” problem comes in when the end users of the application try to actually get work done using it. Enterprise software vendors put considerably more thought and resources into developing the sales-driving target feature set than they do an intuitive interface with a well thought out work flow.

    Rather than pointing fingers at vendors, perhaps we should look to the CIO. If they were demanding intuitive software that not only performed a task but actually made the task easier to perform, vendors would respond in kind.

  22. Just read Michael Krigsman’s take on all this, and I’m confused. I thought your post was about why people don’t blog about enterprise software – they do, of course, but it’s usually boring as batsh!t – and not about criticizing enterprise applications more like consumer apps.

    I don’t think Michael Krigsman gets enterprise software particularly; It’s usually very expensive, very bloated, very hard to use, and very hard to keep running. In other words, very crap.

    We accept the awfulness of “enterprisey” software as a part of carrying on an enterprise in much the same way we accept company tax. But you’ll not catch me reading taxmeisters digest any time soon.

    Bring on the sexy.

  23. Just read Michael Krigsman’s take on all this, and I’m confused. I thought your post was about why people don’t blog about enterprise software – they do, of course, but it’s usually boring as batsh!t – and not about criticizing enterprise applications more like consumer apps.

    I don’t think Michael Krigsman gets enterprise software particularly; It’s usually very expensive, very bloated, very hard to use, and very hard to keep running. In other words, very crap.

    We accept the awfulness of “enterprisey” software as a part of carrying on an enterprise in much the same way we accept company tax. But you’ll not catch me reading taxmeisters digest any time soon.

    Bring on the sexy.

  24. The push to get SAP into smaller enterprises is a scandal on several fronts. Rather then repeat a litany, I will say that usability and training issues are the greatest stumbling blocks.

    I have just witnessed the decommissioning of a pre-production SAP system that was to serve a company of about 150 employees. The SAP consultants were, to put it charitably, criminals in every legal sense of the word in regards to fraudulent representations, collusion with the vendor, bait and switch in regards to functions and, finally, knowledge aforethought of the need for follow on fixes that were needed to make the installation minimally useful.

    The company scrapped the SAP install, and a wonderful young man actually cobbled together an amalgam of Web-Ware and existing Microsoft and linux products that now work seamlessly for this small business. Unorthodox? Surely. Supportable? We’ll see. A harbinger of thing to come? Certainly.

  25. The push to get SAP into smaller enterprises is a scandal on several fronts. Rather then repeat a litany, I will say that usability and training issues are the greatest stumbling blocks.

    I have just witnessed the decommissioning of a pre-production SAP system that was to serve a company of about 150 employees. The SAP consultants were, to put it charitably, criminals in every legal sense of the word in regards to fraudulent representations, collusion with the vendor, bait and switch in regards to functions and, finally, knowledge aforethought of the need for follow on fixes that were needed to make the installation minimally useful.

    The company scrapped the SAP install, and a wonderful young man actually cobbled together an amalgam of Web-Ware and existing Microsoft and linux products that now work seamlessly for this small business. Unorthodox? Surely. Supportable? We’ll see. A harbinger of thing to come? Certainly.

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