The Gripe Line

SAN MATEO (01/28/2000) - The greatest innovations in technology in the 1990s came from other countriesHOW DOES AMERICA hold on to its lead in software innovation? A good question, except perhaps we first need to ask if we actually still do have such a lead.

Let's try to look back at the 1990s from the perspective of an historian telling the story of the progress of information technology. What would he or she be likely to point to as the top three software innovations that changed the face of computing in the last ten years?

I'm sure we could agree that at the top of the list you'd have the World Wide Web. And if we're talking from an IT perspective, I don't think there would be much argument about second place belonging to the ERP (enterprise resource planning) revolution pioneered by SAP. Third place might not be so clear, at least not from where we sit today, but let me hazard the prediction that our future historian might have no trouble deciding it belongs to the development of Linux and the open-source software movement in general -- indeed, by then it might challenge the other two for the top spot.

But you see what I'm getting at. Of the three biggest software ideas to come along in the last decade, one was from a British researcher working in Switzerland, the second was from a German company, and the third came from a Finnish graduate student. Of course, it's true that no great inventions occur in a vacuum, and there are certainly other people -- including many on these shores -- who can legitimately claim some credit for the World Wide Web, ERP, and open-source software.

So perhaps it's just a coincidence that these three first blossomed elsewhere, but I wonder. There's rarely a dearth of good ideas floating around; the issue is where the ground is most fertile for them to take root. I remember back in the early 1990s, at just about the time SAP was launching R/3, it seemed as if every single day the InfoWorld offices would be visited by yet another vendor with the client/server solution that was going to finally make all this enterprise computing talk a reality. And many of their proposals sounded quite convincing, probably at least as convincing as the R/3 pitch SAP was making to its first customers.

So why, out of all these great enterprise computing concepts, did SAP prove to be the big winner? Frankly, I don't think it was because it was the easiest or most elegant solution -- far from it, in fact. Even its greatest admirers in the early years complained bitterly about how difficult R/3 was to install, how inflexibly it forced you to do things its way, and so on. In the end, however, if you pounded on it hard enough and let it pound on you hard enough, SAP provided companies with solutions they desperately needed; that's why it succeeded.

The question I think we have to ask is what were the Oracles and the Computer Associates and the other enterprise-level American software vendors doing while SAP was getting rolling over there in Germany? The explanations for why we fell behind over here are no doubt innumerable, but as the curmudgeonly Gripe Line guy, I'll offer one of my own: I suspect our big software companies were complacently contemplating what trivial bells and whistles they could add to force their captive customer base into another expensive upgrade. When you know that the cost for your customers to switch to another product is virtually prohibitive, and nobody else is offering anything that's clearly better anyway, why bother to innovate?

As a commercial company, the SAP case is obviously a bit different from the World Wide Web and Linux. Even with the noncommercial developments, however, I suspect that there may have indeed been some advantage to their being created outside the mainstream of the U.S. software arena. Perhaps fewer people would stop to ask how this new thing would work with Microsoft Windows and instead see the potential for it doing something new, making it just a little easier to get the ball rolling. Or maybe it is just a coincidence. Time will show us where the next real innovations appear. But if it's Singapore or India or Hungary, I won't be that surprised.

Why do I choose this particular moment to write about this? Well, partly because it's a good time to review the events of the 1990s, but there's another reason: UCITA (Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act). State legislators and maybe even some governors will soon be passing judgement on that law, and they are going to be hearing a lot of talk from the software industry's lobbyists about how it's needed to protect America's lead in software innovation. I just hope enough of them realize that not only is that innovative edge perhaps already mythical, but that passing UCITA will virtually guarantee a society in which technology innovation has little chance to take root.

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