The Analyst's Couch
Unbound Opinions from Industry Observers
Can Open Systems Sell Products?
By Richard L. Ptak
Today's competitive IT market exacts terminal punishment from those who
purchase technology independent of identifiable, certifiable payback. IT
that doesn't offer the most cost-effective solution to a real business problem
wastes resources that are better applied elsewhere. Yet, although it's a
business fact, recognized by most, that technology is a tool and not a goal
in itself, many buyers seem to disregard this at every decision point.
Open systems purport to facilitate access to resources and applications
across a range of systems and networks. Several times a year at various
industry venues, several thousand individuals gather to promote visions
and versions, mergers and convergence in support of advanced products that
often appear to be of more interest to the vendor participants than the
ultimate product consumers. But even these participants are growing somewhat
weary and jaded as the promise of reality-based, de facto-standardized mechanisms
continues to fall victim to bureaucratic sclerosis and proprietary paranoia.
Of course, vendors must know how to position and rank their products vis-a-vis
the competition. They need to be sensitive to technology trends, stepwise
improvements in tools and the like. These tactics stand as key determinants
in the ability to effectively develop, position, promote and sell against
competitive products. But vendors must be cooperative as well as competitive
to survive. Integration, data exchange, common APIs: Every product introduction
comes loaded with verbiage describing the benefits of the standardized,
level playing field for access to data.
Here we come upon the paradox of open systems: People want it, but they
have trouble actually buying it. Before they will buy, consumers must believe
their purchase will deliver greater benefit to their business than any of
the alternatives. Unless they have an unlimited budget and/or a death wish,
they make purchases on the basis of the ability to alleviate pain caused
by business problems. Unix, Windows 95, NT, MPE or MVS--consumers will choose
on the basis of which conveys the most applications to actively address
Lure of the Proprietary
Open systems have been promoted as fundamental nostrums in that cure. But
set against the only real figures that count--pure volume of solutions--the
environment of choice often is a proprietary environment--one that is standard
only in the sense that it enjoys widespread distribution and packaging,
while design, development, control and definition of the environment rest
in the hands of one, and only one, vendor.
There is a reason why the corporate desktop belongs to Windows, despite
its shortcomings and missing "open systems" pedigree. It is the
ubiquitous, unambiguous delivery mechanism for the solutions that address
and alleviate customer pain today. This is not to argue that real benefit
has not accrued (and continues to accrue) from the efforts at defining,
designing and implementing standards-based solution environments. The evolution
of standards has made a fundamental contribution to IT and its ability to
create and deliver effective solutions. Further, the space for its contribution
is by no means exhausted, with much work still remaining. The message of
open systems benefits has taken, but in and of itself a generic open systems
tag line is not compelling enough to justify a purchase.
The vendor's task remains the same as ever. Deliver the benefit. Show the
consumer solutions that meet immediate business needs. The vast majority
of the market has little interest in the arcane world of dueling technologies,
with which vendors are intimately familiar and which they discuss in excruciating
detail. The solutions purchaser is perfectly willing for vendors to conduct
their battles in private, as long as they provide solutions that live up
to their promise and perform as advertised.
Few businesses ache from an absence of open systems; they hurt from the
costs of unanticipated congestion, avoidable failure and the unreliable
delivery of incompatible services, whether it is an incomplete phone call
or a failed accounting application. Cooperative definition and delivery
of truly compatible, standards-based environments and support services will
win the consumer competition only if they answer these demands.
Does this situation signify the demise of open systems? Has the investment
and effort been futile? Is the chorus of proprietary solution diehards on
the verge of vindication?
Certainly not. It does mean that proponents of open systems must make a
hard and highly critical self-evaluation. They must eliminate the politically
correct, never-ending discussion that has delayed delivery or compromised
efforts aimed at providing viable, consistent open systems platforms. Even
if this is realized only through the cooperative efforts of a limited number
of vendors, open systems proponents must focus their effort on delivery
of a standard platform environment.
TCP/IP, SNMP, early Unix: All were the result of bold assertion and the
aggressive presentation of effective responses to real problems. They met
specific customer needs. Today's customers are not enthralled by technology
and its minutiae. For them, availability takes precedence. A decisive move
by open systems suppliers can still foster the growth of a true solutions
industry to the benefit of the consumer and the fast-footed vendors who,
cooperatively, provide it.
Richard L. Ptak is director of systems management research
for D. H. Brown Associates in Amherst, NH.