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Making enterprise software more like the web

There is no software rule that requires enterprise software to be ugly, complex, and expensive. In fact, the web is teaching us just how easy software can be to use and deploy. Maybe there's a lesson for open source in this?

Yesterday was the second day of Alfresco's quarterly management meeting (and no, I don't like this one because there are no football matches during the summer, though I am going with Luis to see The Drowsy Chaperone tonight. During the meeting, we spent awhile talking through changes in enterprise software; or, rather, changes that should happen in enterprise software.

What's the biggest problem in enterprise software today? I mean, besides how expensive, complex, and clunky it is?

It doesn't work the way the world works.

What do I mean? I mean that despite the fact that, as John Donne might write, "no corporation is an island, entire unto itself," most enterprise software treats corporations (and their denizens) exactly as islands. Little pools of creativity who share within the walls of their own corporation, if at all (and generally not at all).

Interestingly, we have the whole Web 2.0 world shouting at us that this is, in fact, not the way the world works. Or, at least, not the way it would prefer to work. The world wants to be connected through LinkedIn; to purchase from eBay or Craigslist with those purchases informed by one's peers a la Amazon; to socially determine what information matters as with Digg; etc. And the world (as defined by the Internet) wants to be easy to use, with data that interacts with other data (beyond the website where it is originally housed).

John Newton, playing the visionary CTO role to perfection, was the one challenging the rest of us to stop thinking about Enterprise Content Management software as confined within the walls of a single entity, and to break down the walls (as he intimates on his blog. We're still trying to determine the best ways to realize his vision, but I suspect some general principles apply (to us and, most likely, to you, too):

  • There's no good reason for enterprise applications to be a billion times uglier and harder to use than consumer applications. Partly, this is a matter of a nice UI (Ajax, Flex, etc.). But partly it is a matter of design. Enterprise applications often treat customers as objects to be controlled/forced into using the application. The web recognizes that users will flock to applications that are easy to use and nice to look at. Enterprise applications need to earn their keep much mor than they have.

  • Individual corporate customers can benefit by harnessing the intelligence/decisions/ operations of all your other customers, and feeding that data back to individual customers (Includes simple things like FAQs that present "most read tutorials" and goes from there);

  • Your business need not be as traditional as you think. Stephe Walli has pressed me on this one before, but it wasn't until yesterday that I believed. (Sorry, Stephe.) Maybe none of us need be in the "software business" at all - maybe there's other ways to monetize the data that emerges from our software....(Still thinking this one through.)

  • There are a lot of services that need not be consumed entirely behind the firewall. See the first point above. The key will be in marrying offline and online applications + content, and in welding together content that sits beyond and behind the firewall.

I don't have any concrete answers just yet, but I'm all for enterprise software that embraces the ease of use and ease of access that Web 2.0 "software" has demonstrated. There really is no good reason for software to remain isolated, ugly, and complex. That's Enterprise 1.0. Time to move on....