A Little Window Shopping

A well-known and highly respected journalist friend called me yesterday for a quick ‘sanity check’. “It’s this collaboration suite for small and medium-sized businesses that Oracle and Sun have announced, do you think that Microsoft’s customers are going to defect en masse or are they kidding themselves”?

This is, of course a solution that has Oracle’s software running on lower-cost Sun hardware and which has been certified on both Sun’s Solaris and supports Linux too, giving Sun customers a choice of platforms, UltraSparc or x86 processors.

What my friend was referring to directly was not so much Star Office, which Sun is promoting as the most sensible and cost effective alternative to Microsoft’s Office in the known-universe but Oracle’s own collaboration suite, which I understand consolidates multiple into a single integrated system. One feature in particular is a Microsoft-Exchange-like email server features, which can be accessed by Microsoft's Outlook client.

Do you think”, he asked, “That small businesses will dump the Exchange Server and migrate towards this Sun/Oracle partnership instead?”

“Let me answer by telling you of my own experience ” I replied.

For eighteen years, I ran The Lotus User Group and watched how one standard, Lotus 1-2-3, one day became Microsoft’s standard with Excel and Windows. I watched almost the same thing happen with cc:Mail and Lotus Notes, as businesses finally conceded that the messaging standard was Exchange. Ultimately even my own technical support team, forced the Lotus User Group to stop using Lotus Notes, in favour of Exchange, as our own internal mail system, because firstly it was the de-facto standard and secondly, it was cheaper and easier to support at the time.”

Regardless of whether Oracle’s application server and database combination offer better collaborative, software, my experience tells me that businesses just want messaging without most of the extra collaborative bells and whistles, which incur extra and expensive development work. Businesses are conservative and they buy into things called standards because they are safe, not because they are more expensive and when DTI Minister Steven Timms “Backs open source as future for UK business users”, I think he is jumping both the gun and the reality gap at the same time.

UK business, like UK government, may be looking at Open Source alternatives to the so-called Microsoft monopoly but it does not mean that they are planning to use them to any significant degree in the near term.

In my notes from December’s EURIM meeting on Open Standards/Open Source in e-government, I have written two comments. The first is that "Open Source is an unstoppable, disruptive technology" and the second, which is rather more damning of the present climate, simply says "No understanding of Open Standards, how these are put together and how these continue to a (a state of necessary) interoperability", which is the key to future success.

In my own mind, Microsoft represents the BMW of the business software world. When you buy Microsoft software you know what you are buying, there are no mysteries, there is a huge service industry to support your investment and you know it’s going to be an expensive, long and possibly uneventful relationship. Should the wheels fall off you mail server, then there is always someone available to fix the problem and have you back on the road again.

Alternatively, you could buy an Alfa Romeo. It looks great. It sounds great and you’ve always wanted one but it’s an Alfa Romeo and you just know what’s going to happen one day and the result will be very expensive.

Companies like standards. They like ‘safe’ and they don’t mind expensive so much if ‘safe’ is attached to the decision, rather like “You never got fired for buying IBM”.

It's my opinion that no amount of cheap horse power will convince small to medium size businesses to jump away from Microsoft Exchange towards a cheaper and more attractive Open Standards alternative until society has finished with the current business computing paradigm completely and that’s at least five years away. Until then, Sun and Oracle may need to come up with a more tempting package.

A pair of Open Source fluffy dice perhaps?


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