Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Best Practices vs. Practical Reality

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

I’m struck by the huge gap that I see between acknowledged best practices and what companies are actually practicing. More than once, I have researched a product direction and decided not to pursue it because it seemed to me that the market must already be saturated. Later, when talking to customers, I’m stunned to find that hardly any of them have bought or are using the product in question. How can a market support a dozen companies when none of them seem to have any market share?

If you are a regular reader of eWeek, Infoworld, CIO Insight and others you might be lead to believe that every IT department is:

  • Heavily using virtualization products
  • Using comprehensive network and application monitoring tools
  • Diligently practicing strong security techniques
  • Maintaining audit logs and performing correlation analysis on them
  • Faithfully practicing ITIL techniques

Now, I’m not in Sales, but I’ve been to a lot of sales calls. I’ve probably talked to 100 companies over the last year. Of these, I can count on zero fingers the number of them that are practicing all of things mentioned above. On the other hand, the companies that are practicing none of the above is definitely non-zero!

In most cases, when I ask companies about the items I listed above, they sheepishly admit ot their failings. They know they should be doing these things. In some cases, they’ve even already paid for necessary software but have yet to deploy it. There is some tremendously successful shelfware in the industry.

What to make of all this?

  1. Don’t shy away from markets that seem to be crowded. There is still plenty of “whitespace” in the market where clever products and good companies can succeed.
  2. Don’t assume you can’t compete against software that’s been available for many years. I believe that there’s a lot of enterprise software that suffers from having been written 5 or 10 years ago using brittle programming techniques. A company with a strong engineering team can quickly develop a competing product using modern tools and techniques.
  3. Even good ideas and good products can take a good long time before they’re commonplace in IT. Certainly, most IT departments have good backup/restore infrastructure and good disaster recovery plans. It’s probably taken 10-20 years to make these pervasive practices.
  4. Read the journals, but talk to customers. The rags are way too preoccupied with what the top 5% of the IT innovators are doing. They are much less representative of the 1900 companies in the Fortune 2000.

There’s one other aspect of the problem that I’m still digesting. If there are a dozen competitors in a market, all doing the same thing and none of them are succeeding maybe the solution is to do something else. I’m reminded of a story I heard while taking a quality control course years ago. The story takes place in WWII and describes how an aircraft manufacturer decided on what parts of its planes needed extra armor. It had an engineer studying aircraft returning from combat. The company would look at bullet holes on the planes and add armor where there were no bullet holes. Why? Obviously, the planes that got shot in those places were the ones that didn’t survive the battle.

This is obvious once it’s explained but it requires appreciating what artists call “negative space”. If you don’t know what this is, look for the arrow in the FedEx logo.

The Future of Linux

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

As a software developer, I get to see aspects of Windows, Linux, UNIX and Mac OS X of which end-users are oblivious. In previous posts, (for example, What Linux Needs to Learn from Windows) I have bemoaned the lack of standards between Linux distributions and the lack of system APIs. I’ve also praised Microsoft for delivering useful functionality in .NET (Programming is Fun [Again]).

Is Linux doomed to fail? Will Microsoft continue its hegemony?

If you read my series The Decline and Fall of Microsoft you know that I think Microsoft is facing some huge structural challenges. Nevertheless, here’s what I think is going to happen over the next 5 years:

  1. Microsoft will lose a large percentage of the general-purpose PC business to Apple. It will keep 50% or so, but mostly for dedicated workstations. Apple will take a majority of the laptop business.
  2. IT departments will continue to replace proprietary UNIX servers with Linux, especially given the move towards more virtualization.
  3. Windows will see an increased share of the server business driven by .NET and Sharepoint applications.
  4. Linux on the desktop will see minimal gains.
  5. Linux will dominate in the special-purpose, sub-notebook, business (such as with the Eee PC on which I am currently typing). Linux will also see increased use in some specific scenarios that require limited application availability.

All in all, I think there will be growth for Linux but it will actually lose overall composite share. I believe this for several reasons.

Although Linux is growing in the server business, I think that Microsoft will soon surpass its growth rate, if it hasn’t already (I don’t have my IDC numbers handy). Linux server growth is driven by UNIX-to-Linux conversions (i.e. new Oracle servers running Linux instead of Solaris) and by Apache server use. I think the former is a limited business and I think the latter is already limited by overall market growth. To grow share, Linux has to take away Windows server business, especially in the Intranet, and I don’t see this happening. Why? I think that Microsoft is winning the war for the hearts and minds of developers. Microsoft is an API company. Red Hat (except for JBoss) and Novell are not. Innovations in Linux API are mostly made by other companies (MySQL, Eclipse, Sugar CRM, etc.) and are often OS-independent. Microsoft, having totally stumbled on Vista, seems to have not screwed up Windows Server 2008, Sharepoint and SQL Server.

In the general-purpose, desktop/laptop business, Linux is missing Microsoft Office. In spite of the things I dislike about Office 2007, it’s still the Swiss Army knife of productivity software. Open Office is a poor, poor, substitute at any price. Even Office for the Mac is a poor substitute but it’s good enough. Workers who have the freedom to buy what they want (e.g. executives, technoids) will buy Macs. Vista is an embarrasment. I wish Microsoft would just port WPF and the new shell to XP, throw out everything else in Vista and admit its mistakes.

The only segment that I see Linux gaining market share is the specialty-use market. Sub-notebooks, like my Eee PC want to keep costs very low. This means they need an inexpensive OS that doesn’t require a lot of resources to run. Vista won’t cut it. Windows CE is too limited. I’d love to run Mac OS X on my Eee PC but I can’t without riling Apple’s lawyers. Linux is the only choice. Similarly, we’ve run into one or two companies that want to install Linux on a computer to use it only as a Citrix terminal. What’s weird is that they’ll be using Linux to run Windows applications via remote terminal services.

On the whole, this is not a very exciting future for Linux. There is still money to be made in the Linux business and Red Hat, Novell and others may be satisfied with the niches that I’ve described above. Personally, I find my prognoses somewhat depressing. I like Mac OS X but Apple’s walled-garden mentality is very 1980s. Microsoft still has a strong platform for software developers but I think that over time, their size and inability to execute will infect all areas in the company.

I wish that Linux was a better operating system than it is. I’d love there to be a credible alternative to the mess of Microsoft and the tyranny of Apple.