All That's Old Is New Again in Enterprise Software

Vendors' cyclical game of repackaging the old is in style this season: Best of breed is back, baby!

I was shopping for a new pair of glasses last week, and I couldn't help but notice all of the retro looks and eyewear designs that are now considered hot items in the optical industry: Vintage glasses and thick-framed styles that were popular around the time I was born are selling briskly, the saleswoman told me.

The fashion world is well known for its re-use of past trends and self-righteous rewrites of history: What's "must-have" one year is gauche the next. And what was "ugly as sin" five years ago is chic today.

The IT industry occasionally plays a similar cyclical game: Vendor strategies, product offerings and even executive rhetoric can make customers feel like it's déjŕ vu all over again.

Frustrated CIO: "Wait a second! Just last quarter you told me that going with packaged apps was a sure-fire way to get fired!"

I was thinking of this in light of SAP's Tuesday announcement of new real-time analytics products: "Today, SAP launches 10 new applications that can be deployed in as little as eight weeks and are designed to work with structured or unstructured data from any SAP or non-SAP system."

The "sell" of SAP's latest software, as articulated by industry analysts in an article by Jaikumar Vijayan, is a best-of-breed, standalone app that can target specific vertical industries with less customization than before.

Where oh where did we hear this one before? Oh yeah, back in the 1980s, when parachute pants, polo shirts with collars up, and Madonna were, like, totally cool.

Of course, the best-of-breed "fad" petered out as the FUD of Y2K approached in the 1990s: Enterprise software vendors (including SAP) urged their customers to implement a single instance of their integrated software suite of applications. Standardization sold a ton of ERP systems.

Enterprise vendors would still love to sell you the entire suite of products they have either developed or assembled via acquisition. But SAP's announcement—the acknowledgement of the unstructured vs. structured data problem vexing their customers and those customers' mostly heterogeneous computing environments—shows a more reasoned approach to enterprise software development and sales.

Best of Breed Lives Again! Huzzah!

We've also witnessed Oracle's "Back to the Future" strategy: CEO Larry Ellison has made it widely know that he wants Oracle to look more like Thomas Watson’s IBM of yesteryear: a monolithic tech conglomerate that provides complete systems for its customers. (I like to imagine Larry wearing the IBM uniform of the 1960s: Dark suit, white shirt, thin black tie and thick-rimmed glasses. Actually, that look is probably in style now, too.)

Many traditional software vendors have also done abrupt about-faces on their views of SaaS and cloud computing—for example, Harry "The SaaS Industry Will Collapse in Two Years" Debes, of Lawson. (I wonder if the history books will ever forget that gem.)

Of course, for some companies there are a handful of well-worn computational accessories that they consider never to have gone out of style: mature mainframes in the data center; SAP's R/3 and Oracle's PeopleSoft ERP applications now with wrinkles and gray hair; and other boxes in the back office that could make a CIO blush with embarrassment.

I wonder what'll be in vogue next year: Green screens, anyone?

Thomas Wailgum covers Enterprise Software, Data Management and Personal Productivity Apps for CIO.com. Follow him on Twitter @twailgum. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. E-mail Thomas at twailgum@cio.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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