For all the talk of the consumerization of IT, anyone that uses both can attest to the fact that there's still a huge usability gap between business and consumer-oriented software applications. This gap largely has to do with the quality of the interface, and as anyone that's expected to interface with most database-driven applications can attest, many such enterprise apps would never sell in the open market based on interface design. Reliability, yes. Security? Usually. Usability, not so much.
And sex appeal? Hell no.
Therefore, it wasn't too big of a leap for tech blogger Robert Scoble to recently ask why enterprise software "isn't sexy." (His question reminded me of the now-infamous quote from Steve Jobs, who after returning to save the company he co-founded and being asked at a board meeting why Apple products weren't selling, cried "there's no sex in them anymore!")
For asking the question, Scoble got torched by a round of flames that I believe is still rolling around the blogosphere (one of the more interestingly titled being "Enterprise Software Is Sexy Like Diane Keaton, Not Britney" by SaaS blogger Anshu Sharma).
It's a good question -- has "sexy" really ever been a part of enterprise business software development? I've been using database-driven applications of one form or another all of my working life, and I can attest to the fact that some software packages are more, ahem, appealing than others. Nothing even remotely approaching arousal though, even to a confirmed techhead like myself.
However, in the past year I've been to a number of software conferences (I'm thinking of Microsoft Dynamics, SAPPHIRE, Inforum and IFS World Conference specifically) where the various and sundry spokespeople were absolutely obsessed with making business app usability a competitive differentiator -- or at the very least, were obsessed with talking about how they were going to accomplish this feat. Microsoft and SAP dipping into 2.0-style applications, Infor developing what they called "role-based homepages" that each user could tailor to fit their business needs (user customizability is definitely "sexy") and IFS actually had a newly developed ERP interface called Aurora that they said was of Scandinavian design but which I joked in my coverage looked like an iPhone/Vista mashup.
Coupled with this usability trend, pretty much every progressive manufacturing CIO/CTO I've spoken with has some form of mashup, socially-oriented or other 2.0-style application on the budget wish list for 2008. What will happen at the, um, climax of these two trends? It may not be sexy, but it will probably be profitable.
Anyway, although it might not hold true elsewhere, too much sex in the business software can be a bad thing. When I interviewed him at the IFS world conference, CTO Dan Mathews of IFS said that one thing they kept in mind was that making their ERP interface too cool and interactive could be just as big a mistake as keeping it stale and user-unfriendly -- after all, put too much sizzle in the steak and you affect worker productivity levels, which defeats the whole purpose of enterprise software in the first place.