Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dusting Off Old Ideas to Meet the New Challenges

One thing I'm seeing a lot more lately is that companies seem to be taking bigger risks in the hopes of generating greater excitement from customers.  I see it with cars and trucks, electronic gadgets, and just starting to see it with software vendors.  Having been immersed in developer programs for some large companies in the past, I am very familiar with some of the ideas they toyed with and put on a shelf because they didn't feel the "time was right".  Some of those shelved ideas frustrated me and many others to death.  We would often "beg" for the product or feature to be released for public use, but the vendors would consult their boards and decide otherwise.

What I'm seeing now is at least an interest in going back into the brain vault and search for golden nuggets that might generate some marketing interest, and thereby generate revenue.  I cannot comment on specifics, but I've seen it with big companies, and many smaller companies as well.  There are still projects I wish they would consider pulling back out and tuning up for public release.  Most of the reasons they do not are tied to politics (business politics, not politics-politics) and partnership agreements, IP sharing agreements, antitrust risks, and so forth.

I'm really hoping that with the prolonged economic stress, that these vendors put more focus on taking risks and doing some really innovative things.  Car makers are getting a little more aggressive with shortening the gap between teasing us with concept cars to actually selling them.  I really hope that progresses to the point where they don't tease anymore and just produce it.  The only company I've seen do that at present is Apple.  They don't talk smack, until AFTER they produce a product.  And when they announce its release, it also ready for sale.  Every other vendor talks crap for months, ends up selling short on features (from those promised early on), and almost always ends the announcement with "will be available starting (insert six months from announcement date here)."   It's dumb.  Just dumb.  It's 2009.  Execution should be optimized to the point where this is not an issue.  Apple figured it out, so there's no reason everyone can't figure it out as well.  It's called business.

I'm a skeptic by nature.  At 44 I've seen so many promises fall through the cracks.  So many assurances fall apart.  Things that are widely held to be "permanent" fade, erode or morph into something entirely different.  Lao Tsu and Confuscious had a lot to say about "permanence" and they were right.  Software companies are proof of that.  So the skeptic in me says that these vendors are only testing the waters with leveraging true innovation tactics.  They will tap their creative juices just enough to measure the effect on the other end.  None of them will dive in head-first.  Not unless the economy continues to erode into a much worse condition, where they will act on desperation and that almost always gets sloppy and breaks down.

I remember working on some very interesting projects in the 90's where a well-known CAD vendor was having us play with a web-based CAD service that opened up a huge world of potential for all platforms (Windows, Apple, UNIX, Linux), but that was killed after a month of very promising reaction from participants.  I also recall working on a radically different software license control system that would have made it easier to deploy, audit, and control usage for clients inside and outside of the WAN environment.  This too was squashed in the middle of hopeful results.  I could cite many others, but with every one of these the problem was not technical but intellectual.  Usually it boiled down to potential issues with contracts, litigation, or marketing views.  Too bad.  Too bad for us and the users we support ("us" being IT and software engineering folks).  Indeed, many of these projects would be fantastic in 2009, but I seriously doubt they will see the light of day.  That's the skeptic in me again.  I'm hoping they prove me wrong.
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