Making friends and influencing vendors

With the industry still chewing over the meaning of the Microsoft-Sun Microsystems detente, I wondered: had either company's customers actually influenced the settlement? More importantly, what does IT want from vendors such as Microsoft and Sun?

I thought I might use this momentous occasion to talk to somebody in a bricks-and-mortar company about the possible impact, if any, on IT.

I believe Tony Scott, CTO of General Motors in the US, can speak to issues that plague the enterprise as well as IT executives. Scott regularly travels west to meet with the likes of Microsoft and Oracle, east to visit IBM, and to Plano to drop by Electronic Data Systems.

Whether or not he or any other IT executive like him has an influence on vendors cannot be claimed with 100 percent certainty.

Scott tells me that no one he knows specifically went to Scott McNealy or Steve Ballmer and said, "You guys should smoke a peace pipe." Still, he's talked with both men numerous times about this very topic.

"We have had the conversation on the subject matter of interoperability and better integration," Scott says, "and not just once."

The biggest stick GM and others can wave in front of software vendors is, of course, downsized IT budgets. "With fewer dollars, the number of vendors we can support is going to be smaller," Scott says.

And so what are Scott and his peers telling the likes of McNealy and Ballmer?

"I open my comments by asking, 'For how many of you is the default configuration of your software the way you would recommend that I run that software?'" Scott says. "Everyone looks at their shoes and nobody raises their hands."

If GM sold cars that needed a mechanic to assemble them before they could be driven, Scott says he's sure someone would come up with a better business model. Instead of new features, Scott wants lower transition costs. He doesn't want to have to rip everything out every time something new comes along.

"Yes, ultimately we want software to improve business capability and functionality," Scott said, "but it can't be at any price."

What's the impact on companies such as GM if the software industry refuses to listen?

"It is huge," Scott says. "Our sleepless nights are caused by multiple incompatible standards that get critical mass [in the marketplace]."

For example, Scott is looking forward to interoperability between .Net and J2EE. "Today we pay money to have custom code and development in this area, because the R&D hasn't been done at Microsoft and Sun," he says.

Other emerging technologies that give Scott restless nights: grid computing, Web services, and RFID (radio frequency identification).

And, because GM is a global company, Scott is also concerned with what's happening in China. The Chinese government's desire for alternatives to current security standards -- which it cites as inappropriate for its needs -- could add "cost, complexity, and an opportunity to mess up", he says.

But good news may be on the way. Scott tells me he's seen "a sharp change in [software ISVs' pitches] to us in every single company we visited." Vendors have all begun trumpeting that their software is cheaper to install, upgrade, and maintain. Scott's final thought: "I hope the IT industry is getting a little grey hair and learns from past mistakes."

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