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Tech Industry

Gerstner riffs on the customer blues

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says IBM's former CEO is spot on in charging the computer industry with making things too hard on its customers. But how likely is a change, really?

If Lou Gerstner is right, the technology industry is overdue for a gut check.

Finishing out a nine-year tenure at IBM, Gerstner, who blew into the San Francisco Bay Area this week to talk up his newly published memoirs, has a simple message for his brethren in the computer business: You're still making things too hard on your customers.

With the global economy still in a funk and the threat of more conflict in the Middle East, this might seem the most picayune of quibbles. But it's precisely because of all that stormy mix and uncertainty that the scolding from Gerstner is all the more relevant.

Gerstner makes little secret of his impatience with the tradition of providers shoving piecemeal, often incompatible solutions down the throats of companies, which are then expected to shoulder the additional burden of systems integration.

Big Blue's former CEO remembers that this was the same bizarre reality he faced as a technology consumer. Before becoming IBM's CEO in 1993, Gerstner was on the other side of the negotiating table, spending four years as CEO of RJR Nabisco and 11 years at American Express.

"I was a customer of the industry for a very long time," Gerstner noted. "I knew that what I wanted from the IT industry was a way to integrate technologies in my business...but it was like buying a car in pieces."

Plus ça change, eh, Lou?

I knew that what I wanted from the IT industry was a way to integrate technologies in my business...but it was like buying a car in pieces.
--IBM Chairman Lou Gerstner
In his day, Gerstner recalled that if a company showed up for a delivery at the loading docks without standardized palettes, the customer would have booted the unfortunate knucklehead out the door. Unfortunately, computer and software companies care less about interoperability than they do about getting a company's IT department to sign on the dotted line. Who hasn't heard stories about hard-charging salespeople willing to promise anything to win the business? That wouldn't raise any objection but for the hodgepodge of competing, contradictory technologies they foist upon the customer.

Truth be told, Gerstner's car analogy isn't so off the mark. It took the automobile industry some time to fully integrate the technology of the time. But drivers were not expected to acquire the skills of auto mechanics to operate the vehicle. Consider all the brass levers, spindles and cranks someone needed to master to get a 1905 Rolls-Royce to move forward. Within 15 years, you could do the same, thanks to the clutch and the H-pattern shift box. By the late 1930s, automatic transmissions arrived on the scene.

The computer industry has similarly come far, though it's still got miles to go.

Is there any reason why alphabet soup protocols shouldn't always play nicely with each other? Or why did it take so long for switches, storage systems and other components to work with Fibre Channel--once touted as the cure-all for storage networking ills.

Considering the comeuppance delivered to the tech industry the last couple of years, the IT industry could stand to rid itself of its most self-defeating habit.

The answer is the same it was a decade ago: the pursuit of short-term advantage. As a result, customers now find themselves integrating systems built using different technologies that must now be delivered in ways its originators never intended. But before reaching for that second scotch, there is a glass-half-full story to be told.

With Web services, the proprietary approach simply won't fly. The key motivation for Web services--which I think will be the tech story of 2003--is to create computing systems that work smoothly with networks inside and outside a company's firewall. If it works out the way it should, enlightened self-interest will force everyone to the same standards table.

The logic is appealing. Considering the comeuppance delivered to the tech industry the last couple of years, the IT industry could stand to rid itself of its most self-defeating habit. It would be a waste if Gerstner's words fell on deaf ears.