When the minnows become pirahnas

by admin on July 25, 2006

in Innovation

Whenever I read Dan Bricklin’s blog I smile. For those that don’t know, Dan is the ‘father’ of the spreadsheet. The guy who, though he didn’t know it until we talked earlier in the year, hooked me into buying my first lugtop – an Apricot – which came with a green screen thing called Windows and SuperCalc II. A few years prior, I’d used VisiCalc. That was some 23 years ago.

Today, Dan updated his blog, talking about the way wikiCalc is being developed for use with the SocialText wiki, coincidentally on the day after Ross Mayfield announced the open source version of SocialText along with a raft of welcome cosmetic changes. Meanwhile, arch curmudgeon Nick Carr is taking Joe Kraus to task over his including Office style apps inside JotSpot. Dan Farber has the details. Which got me thinking.

When I look back over the history of modern computing, the truly great breakthroughs have been the invention of very small teams. Dan hand crafted wikiCalc at his home office pretty much in his spare time. Graham Wylie, one of Sage’s co-founders once told me about the times he spent writing code as a university graduate. Even the mighty SAP started with just three guys and a great idea. The core teams at the companies the really interest me are often no more than a handful of seriously bright people. They are the true innovators.

The difference today is that an Internet fueled media can get the word out and make these new inventions virally successful in a matter of weeks and months. Look at Basecamp’s 500,000 users. Massive scale can be near instant. Is it surprising then that I don’t see any appetite among the current innovators who are getting traction to be acquired?

So when people like Nick Carr and others tell me that my sniping at SAP, Microsoft, Oracle, Sage and IBM is little more than pissing in the wind by a grumpy old git, I have two questions: What makes you think you’re invincible? What right have you earned to say, with any degree of confidence, that Microsoft (for example) near monopoly on the desktop cannot be successfully challenged?

Is it because of their having $40 billion in the bank or 65K staff or that their stuff comes with every PC Dell ships? If the answer is in the affirmative, do you think people like Dan, Joe, Ross and others are so stupid as to develop something they haven’t a hope in hell of selling? Or worse still, take a great idea and then put a developmental bullet through their brains?

The world has changed. I don’t get impressed when I’m told that, for instance, “All SAP deals are 20 year deals.” If anything, such statements horrify me. You need a sense of history to understand that when people make those statements, what they seem to be saying is that computing history doesn’t exist. That’s simply not true. And it’s part of why, 23 years on, I’m not betting on the five I’ve mentioned above.

They won’t go away any time soon. They will continue. But, they will be rendered irrelevant in their current form. For a measure of others screwy thinking, consider this. Last week, Oracle UK folk were asked by a good friend of mine for their thoughts on NetSuite. The answer: “We don’t talk about it, we don’t know about it.” That’s taking your eye off the ball. Big time.

For those who think I’ve completely lost the plot, it’s useful to remember that history teaches us something else: All empires fall.

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Dennis Howlett July 26, 2006 at 2:47 am

OK – so what's wrong with a platform play, especially when it gives users what they need? I don't see any value in remaining rooted in simple apps when you can give more where others are failing to do so.

For me, JotSpot is a great example how a 'simple' app can successfully morph into a menu that foolk can easily assemble to suit their needs.

Try that with Microsoft or any of the others I cite.

David Terrar July 26, 2006 at 10:01 am

I just want to add to your comment on the major vendor's invincibility and learning from IT history. You've mentioned Dunn & Bradstreet several times as the once leading financials vendor in earlier posts, but there are plenty of examples. If you had been listing the top 5 ERP vendors in the late 90s, Baan would have been on your list, but where are they now.

I've heard the same story about Oracle people not even registering NetSuite on their radar – very curious, and very shortsighted.

Manoj Ranaweera July 26, 2006 at 12:30 pm

David, Just picking on NetSuite (and also on my comments to DH and JC's discussions). We are currently in the process of discussing developing an interface with NetSuite. They run webservices and so does you. Which makes our life lot easier. On the point you raise, NetSuite is funded by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and I believe they operated (may still do) out of Oracle offices in UK. It is also said that Oracle technology is at the heart of NetSuite. Who knows, Larry might even combine the two companies. Either way he makes more money. By the way we are an Oracle partner as well among others (as you know)

David Terrar July 26, 2006 at 12:54 pm

Hi Manoj, Larry owns 51% personally, and I understand the founders were ex-Oracle. I'm sure they don't work out of Oracle's offices in the UK now, but I don't know about their earlier days. The first version of NetSuite did use Oracle Apps web enabled, but I believe they've done some sort of re-write. I would guess they haven't strayed from Oracle technology, but I hope someone can corroborate that.

Manoj Ranaweera July 26, 2006 at 1:17 pm

Sorry to hijack your blog Dennis. http://news.zdnet.co.uk/software/applications/0,3… states about where they operated from – Oracle campus in Reading. Must go! Got an appointment with NetSuite client!

David Terrar July 26, 2006 at 2:05 pm

Hi Manoj – I can see they used to be on the campus, but I'd love to know if they were actually in an Oracle building – makes the Oracle attitude about them even more bizarre. They seem to have moved to Maidenhead now though.

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