I often wonder what shopping in the "real" world would be like if all vendors followed the same practices as many enterprise software vendors.
For example, imagine walking up to the fish counter at a supermarket and ordering two lobsters. The fishmonger says, "OK" and returns with two crabs. You say, "Wait a second. Those are crabs, not lobsters"—to which the fishmonger replies, "Yeah, but they are really pretty similar, and both can be eaten for dinner, which is your main food goal."
Of course, if the fish seller was being honest, he or she would probably say, "Well, the crab vendors marketing department found out that lobster is more popular and has more positive buzz around it than crab does, so it decided the vendor could increase sales by pretending that crabs were lobster."
And while I know that much of the lobster in lobster salads isnt actually lobster (or even shellfish), most consumers would not mistake a whole crab for a whole lobster. And no fishmonger would try to get away with such a ruse.
But in the enterprise software industry, pretty much everyone tries to be something they really arent, and this can end up costing IT departments a lot of wasted time and effort when they are investigating IT solutions. This kind of chicanery has wasted lots of my own time, as companies have tried to shoehorn their products into the trendy buzzword or acronym of the day.
Right now, the biggest offenders are companies broadly calling their products SOA—or service-oriented architecture—solutions. Pretty much every day, Im bombarded with vendor pitches for products that are supposedly in the SOA space.
Almost every time this happens, I find myself playing the "What is it really?" game, where I put the products in their "real" categories. (This is a development tool, this is a business process management product, this is a portal, and so on.) Probably less than one in 10 of the products being pitched as SOA solutions really are.
I understand why vendors do this. For most vendors, especially smaller ones that have to fight for every customer, the worst-case scenario is to not even be considered by potential customers.
But I have to admit that every time I see a product that is pushing it in terms of categorizing itself as everything possible, my first reaction to the product and the company offering it isnt a positive one. Most times, I think they should just call their product Shimmer, and hire Chevy Chase as the pitchman. ("Hey there, feuding IT folks, youre both right: Its an SOA and a patch management system.")
In addition to the risk of coming off kind of silly-looking, vendors also risk annoying the same people who could be their customers. IT managers are stretched thinner than ever before when it comes to time and resources. They dont have time to go down blind alleys, and theyll really be ticked off if they find out youre been stringing them along. Worst of all, they wont consider you again—even if they have a need for which your product actually is a good fit.
Savvy IT buyers know how to get around some of the worst enterprise vendor me-too-isms. They know to go past the marketing drivel and Web site home pages to the more detailed technical documents and white papers. There, they can usually figure out what the product actually does (and is) instead of what it claims to do (and be).
But IT pros shouldnt have to go through all of this.
I know this is a tough request, but how about a little honesty when it comes to categorizing your product? If potential customers dont feel like a vendor is trying to trick them and waste their time, they might someday become actual customers. And do you really need to be associated with every hot buzzword? Keep in mind, hyped technologies often crash hard and bring some of the associated vendors down with them.
"Just be yourself" is good advice for most people, and its not bad advice for software vendors, either.
And now I need to finish my crab, I mean, lobster thermidor.
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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