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The Great Software Platform Hoax

How would you feel if your mechanic handed you a 125-piece wrench set rather than actually fixing your car? What if another mechanic then walked up to you with his tools and started arguing with the first guy about whose tools were better? You sure wouldn't feel like either of them was going to help you with your problem, would you?

Yet that's exactly what software vendors are doing today as they engage in their platform wars -- much to the detriment of their customers and the software industry.

Here are some of the latest battle cries from software companies: Oracle (ORCL) announces its Fusion platform, revealing a grand architectural chart that shows how it will exercise total control over its customers' computing environments. unveils a platform dubbed AppExchange that it proclaims lets customers to engage with some of the smallest software vendors in the business more rapidly and conveniently than ever.

THE REAL WORLD. SAP (SAP) trumpets NetWeaver, which grafts a proprietary technology onto a collection of otherwise practical standards to render them impractical and nonstandard. And, of course, Microsoft (MSFT) seeks to achieve global hegemony with a platform of its own: .Net. If you're a CIO, you're familiar with this dance. If you're not, be grateful.

Corporate customers, however, aren't out shopping for new computing platforms. They need business solutions that actually help them compete and succeed in the real world. They also want something that no platform-obsessed vendor seems able to provide: a technology partner that can actually be held accountable for promised business results -- such as increased revenue, reduced expenses, faster time-to-market, or improved customer satisfaction.

Yet for some reason, software vendors continue with their platform fetish -- despite the fact that platforms don't provide any tangible value. AppExchange is a perfect example. It's a great way for a team of clever coders to package their software for mass consumption, despite the fact that they may lack a professional services organization or a credible long-term technology roadmap. Does any CIO really want to make a strategic purchase from a vendor like that?

FEAR AND DOUBT. Platforms usually aren't platforms anyway. They're "marketectures" that exist purely to rationalize bad acquisitions. Is "Fusion" the right name for the duct tape and rubber bands that will supposedly hold together the recent buying binge that has brought Peoplesoft, JD Edwards, Siebel (SEBL), Retek, and Oracle applications under one roof? "Con-Fusion" is probably more apt.

One reason vendors do the platform dance is that it generates hype. It also creates the fear, uncertainty, and doubt, which are always useful when you lack a solid value proposition.

Plus, when you're the architect of a platform, you make the third-party developers and integrators responsible for doing something with that platform. So you can collect a lot of cash and still have zero accountability for what happens to your customers afterwards.

So what's the alternative to platform madness?

A BETTER MODEL. The answer to that question has two parts. First is the on-demand delivery model. On-demand eliminates the need to create a proprietary technology platform as a competitive differentiator. By taking the operating system, database, application server, Web server, and all the other programs known as the "IT stack" off the customer's hands, the on-demand model renders identity of the individual components meaningless.

After all, the IT stack exists only to support applications. The applications themselves must be capable of being integrated, customized, and scaled as required -- but the underlying "platform" shouldn't be the customer's headache.

The second part of the answer is open source. Open source commoditizes the stack. MySQL replaces Oracle. Linux replaces Windows. TomCat and JBOSS replace Websphere and NetWeaver. Vendors that are still trying to differentiate themselves in these commodity businesses are headed in the wrong direction. Yet that's exactly what platform vendors continue to do.

So next time a software vendor makes an overblown platform announcement, someone should ask it some hard questions. Why are you trying to co-opt open source instead of using it to deliver real value? Have you forgotten how to create applications that actually solve problems, or is that just too much work? How much will this platform ultimately cost me to adopt, and what will my quantifiable gains be once I've done so?

Software vendors should listen to their customers, deliver results, and charge a fair price for their products. Anything else is just a smokescreen for failure.

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