Choose Excellence

Many IT pros don't, putting innovation at risk.

I talk with plenty of it buyers and analysts from consulting firms about the products they evaluate and use. Disturbingly, there is a common undercurrent in these conversations: Quality doesnt matter.

Since its my job to help companies find the best products and technologies, I do think that quality matters, and I reserve my loudest kudos for truly excellent products no matter where they come from. But many IT buyers dont consider quality at all, and if they do, its at the bottom of their checklist.

Of course, lots of lip service is paid to quality. Im sure that during the initial decision phase, the CIO says things like, "Lets go out and find the best product to handle this job!" But once the evaluations start taking place, theres a good chance the best product may be from a vendor with doubts hanging over it, either because its a new player with

no track record or because its the subject of acquisition rumors. When these doubts surface, the typical move is to go with IBM, Microsoft or Oracle, even if the product is mediocre.

This tendency comes from the old "Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM" school of thought. But what does it say about our industry when quality doesnt come into play in buying decisions? How long can our industry sustain innovation at this rate?

Youd think the trade-off would be in quality versus price, as it is in the buying decisions we make every day. But thats the other interesting thing in these corporate buying decisions. The mediocre product from the big "safe" vendor often costs significantly more than the superior product from the vendor with doubts hanging over it. Ironically, companies choose to pay more for less and are, apparently, happy to do so.

There are often legitimate reasons to choose a product from a big vendor. Maybe your company has standardized on a platform from that company, or you use a key enterprise product that integrates well with it. Sometimes the products from the big vendors are also very good. But choosing the big vendors products for the reason of safety alone can mean that a multimillion-dollar business decision is made because someone lacks the guts to recommend the best product for the job.

Is it really safer to go with a product from a big vendor rather than one from a smaller vendor? There are plenty of acclaimed and award-winning products from smaller vendors. Its highly unlikely that an IT manager is going to get fired for buying one of them. Yet the decision to do so seems to be an act of moral courage of which few are capable. IT pros decry vendors with monopoly-caliber market share, and yet they seem uncomfortable buying from anyone else. It seems that for many IT buyers, having to actually make a choice causes more fear than not picking the right product.

Over the history of technology, it happens all the time. A new field emerges, with some innovative companies leading the way with quality products. Then the big players enter with me-too products and begin to slowly move customers to solutions that lock them into the vendors entire product line. Then the original movers and shakers are gobbled up or driven out by the big boys.

Ive seen this happen in many technology markets. And I cant think of a single case where the products got better after the big players took over. Without the original groundbreakers, innovation stagnates and mediocrity sets in. The clout and presence of the big vendors make it almost impossible for new players to enter the market. This isnt good for IT.

I can hear it now: "Jim, youre being awfully naive. This is the way things work. Get used to it."

But just because its always been that way doesnt mean it has to stay that way. Who it is that makes a product shouldnt count for more than how good the product is. I dont want to write reviews where I write, "Product Doubt is clearly the best of the best. But you should probably just go with the safe product from the markets biggest vendor."

I want quality! I want innovation! Now whos with me? Anyone? Anyone?

Jim Rapoza can be reached at