[Revised 8/2/08; still working on cleaning up this consciousness stream.]
Back in the old days, it seemed easy to create a category in software. Look at the database market, for example:
- IBM invents the relational DBMS (RDBMS) category
- Oracle, Ingres, and Informix enter in a largely undifferentiated way, though Informix eventually drifts towards the low-end/cheap segment
- Sybase creates the derivative category of high-performance OLTP RDBMS.
- Arbor re-christens the failed multi-dimensional DBMS as the OLAP Server
- Tandem creates the non-stop RDBMS with its superb fault tolerance
- Illustra launches the universal DBMS and is quickly acquired by Informix
- Sybase launches the bitmap-indexed DBMS with SybaseIQ
- Teradata launches the data-warehouse DBMS category
And you can find just as many examples outside database-land.
- ASK defines the manufacturing resource planning (MRP) category
- SAP hijacks MRP, redefines it as ERP, and goes on to become the world’s largest applications software company
- PeopleSoft invents the HRMS category
- Gartner Group’s Howard Dresner invents the business intelligence (BI) category, re-christening and re-framing what was formally known as DSS or EIS.
- Siebel pioneers the sales force automation (SFA) category
- Scopus pioneers call center automation (CCA)
- Companies like Rubric pioneer enterprise marketing automation (EMA)
- Siebel, through acquisition, coalesces SFA, CCA, and EMA into a single category called customer relationship management (CRM)
- Oracle and SAP work to coalesce CRM back into ERP. Such is the ebb and flow of categories.
People are still creating categories today, and sometimes it looks easy. Uber-categories have been quite popular in the past decade as people have focused on different ways of developing and delivering software:
- SaaS as an uber-category has worked well, with a variety offerings in various SaaS sub-categories (e.g., Salesforce, NetSuite)
- Appliances have done pretty much the same thing — i.e., offering an appliance alternative for a wide variety of existing categories (e.g., a data warehouse appliance a la Netezza)
- Open source has also done the same thing — again serving as a different flavor/dimension for a wide variety of largely existing software categories.
Only a few genuinely new categories have emerged, virtualization being the most obvious example. (Though you could argue that virtualization is itself an uber-category covering storage virtualization, server virtualization, et cetera.)
Companies are still working to carve new categories, particularly in the database market:
- XML servers: MarkLogic
- Column-oriented databases: Vertica
- Stream databases: Streambase, Skyler
- Analytic databases: Aster Data
Sometimes vendors and/or the analysts who cover them try to impose either a straight name change (e.g., from MD-DBMS to OLAP) or a strategic shift (e.g., from BI to analytic applications) in category. Sometimes they’re just bored. Sometimes a vendor’s trying to redefine the market in line with its strengths. Sometimes an analyst is trying to make his/her mark on the industry and earn the coveted “father/mother of [category name],” much as Howard Dresner successfully did with BI.
BI got bored with its name several times during my tenure at Business Objects. At one point both the analysts and Informatica were trying to re-dub the category “analytic applications” in an attempt to get a fresh name and raise the abstraction level from tools to applications. Informatica nearly died on that hill.
Later, analysts tried to redefine the category, dubbing it corporate performance management (CPM), and arguing that business intelligence needed to link with financial planning systems. While knowing actuals is good, knowing actuals compared to the plan is better, and using actuals to drive the future plan better still. Cognos nearly tripped over itself repositioning around the CPM, ultimately acquiring Adaytum, which in turn lead to SRC’s eventual acquisition by Business Objects.
In an art-imitates-life sort of way, one wonders if the analysts predicted a move in the market or provoked it? My chips are on the latter.
This stream-of-consciousness is a long way of winding up to a single question: are enterprise search vendors successfully repositioning themselves as “information access platforms” or not?
- The word “enterprise search” is now seemingly dead, having been contaminated by the Google Appliance. When a shark gets in the water, all the fish jump out.
- The word “information” is increasingly being used as a unifying term to describe both data and content (aka, unstructured data)
- Enterprise search vendors are increasingly calling themselves “information access platforms” (though not generally abbreviated as IAP, I will do so here for brevity).
For example, consider Endeca’s corporate boilerplate:
Endeca’s innovative information access software that helps people explore, analyze, and understand complex information, guiding them to unexpected insights and better dec
isions. The Endeca Information Access Platform, built around a new class of access-optimized database, powers applications that combine the ease of searching and browsing with the analytical power of business intelligence.
I have a number of concerns on and related to this attempted shift:
- The important thing about categories is that they exist in the mind of the customer. Analysts and vendors can try to put them there — but they have to stick. In my mind, IAP is not sticking. I have never heard a customer say: “I need to go out and get an IAP.”
- I do, however, believe that “information” might well stick as an overall term, meaning both data and content (aka, structured and unstructured data).
- It is not clear to me why someone who desires a unified platform for “information” would turn to a search vendor. Search engines were designed as read-only indexes to help people find documents containing tokens; hardly ideal as an application development platform.
- In my estimation, someone managing “special” data should turn to a database vendor. While databases have classically not handled “special” data well, databases were designed as application platforms, and there is a whole new class of specialized databases emerging for handling various “special” types of data.
- While I think a unified platform is a dandy vision, I think no one is close to delivering a unified platform that handles all types of data equally well. Bolting Lucene and MySQL together isn’t a platform. Relational databases still do a poor job with both content and many types of data (e.g., sparse, hierarchical, or semi-structured). XML servers (like MarkLogic) handle XML brilliantly, but need work before they can match RDBMSs at classical relational data.
- I believe that someone who needs a crawl-and-index the intranet value proposition should use the Google Appliance; so I think the search vendors are correct in their desire to flee, I don’t think that “information access platform” is a good refuge.
Overall, my chips remain on the don’t come line for the attempted category repositioning from “enterprise search” to “information access platform.” You can find my stack on the come line for the emerging “special-purpose database” category and “XML servers” as an instance of them.