Why Enterprise Software Must Be Sexy

It all started with a grumble from Bill Gates. In early December, Microsoft’s chairman called out journalists for their scant coverage of business computing, as opposed to their ubiquitous scribblings about the latest consumer products.

The enterprise market is "way bigger," Gates griped, so why does it get such little coverage?

Gates’ complaint set off a fierce tussle between prominent technology bloggers that went beyond the question about media coverage and straight to the essence of enterprise software today.

The battle boiled down to a simple question: Does enterprise software need to be user friendly let alone sexy? Some said it essentially can’t be, while at least one pundit argued that sexiness is the key to success.

First came former Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble, who claimed no one cares about the look and feel of business software because so few people make purchase decisions around it, and those folks have other priorities. CNet blogger Michael Krigsman weighed in next, saying while consumer software should be sexy, enterprise software must first be reliable and secure.

Krigsman buttressed Scoble’s entry by saying IT departments–not rank-and-file workers–rightfully have the final say in purchase decisions. The argument is that CIOs and their staffs are charged with keeping the tech trains running, so they are best suited to decide which tools to bring on board. Bells and whistles don’t guarantee sales, particularly to CIOs and other IT executives who buy software based on its viability for their companies.

Next into the fray charged Nicholas Carr, of Does IT Matter? fame, on his Rough Type blog (click here for more from Carr), arguing that business tools must be sexy–at least in ease of use and intuitiveness–to succeed in a changing marketplace.

Carr has a point. Newer innovations like software as a service, Web 2.0 and mobile applications are broadly available to those outside the IT department. For those consumers of business software, freshness and flash are key selling points.

And those people are increasingly making important buying decisions: A November 2007 Forrester Research study found that 25 percent of non-IT executives buy technology on their own, and a slightly smaller percentage negotiate directly with vendors or manage relationships with them.

As the scope of enterprise software design and use continues to evolve, it’s quite possible the premium put on usability and attractiveness will increase, too–that sexiness will, in fact, sell, and that the enterprise software industry will emphasize fresh design.

So far, reality offers a contrary view. Through acquisition and organic development, giants like SAP, Oracle and IBM dominate large segments of the market. Competition exists, but it’s scarce. So what motivation do the big players have to make their tools sexier? (A new report from the 451 Group says technology investment bankers expect more mergers and acquisitions this year, which could mean those vendors will continue to solidify their standing.)

What about the Gates’ gripe that started the whole kerfuffle? Is enterprise software sexy enough to merit media coverage? Maybe that’s the wrong way to frame the question. Ease of use is key to functionality–think of the adoption rate of blogs, wikis and social networking software versus the lack of interest in many expensive knowledge management products. Usability is a measure of sexiness and it deserves coverage.

The mere fact that enterprise applications were discussed so fervently in the blogs says a lot about the future of enterprise software development, and media interest. And you can be sure it won’t end there.

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