This is the first in a series of posts on "analyst tricks"--heuristics and behaviors that I've picked up over the years that help me analyze technology and markets.
Whenever I hear an end user toss terms into the conversation such as, "obstructionist," "bunch of bozos," and "hard to use," my ears perk up. There's an opportunity for a technological revolution lurking somewhere here.
Major technological revolutions have taken place because they allow users to be significantly more productive. The invention of the word processor meant that secretaries didn't have to retype an entire letter when they got a sentence wrong; spreadsheets meant that financial analysts didn't have to manually add up numbers. These two technologies led to huge advances in productivity and helped explain their popularity. (When I worked at Wang Laboratories, there were a number of stories of secretaries--once they had seen a demo of the Wang Word Processor--who refused to type another letter until their boss bought one for them. These devices were not cheap: $20,000 in the late 1970's).
Pretty basic, huh? Such a statement is not a huge revelation. However, a twist on this rule is that technological revolutions take place when a product offers incremental productivity but gives users much more freedom and and a sense of well-being. Put another way, if you're looking only for huge productivity leaps, you'll miss the popularity of products that give visceral joy.
- The iPod: It isn't as if there weren't portable music players before--however, the iPod was easy to use, was linked to a download service, and "looked cool."
- Minicomputers: Minicomputers took off because departments were mad at having to deal with haughty IT departments. If a business person needed a new report, the typical response was, "Why can't you use ABC report?" If that didn't work, IT would usually say (with a tone implying that the level of effort was similar to putting a man on the moon), "We have a huge backlog--we can probably get it to you in nine months." When departments got the option of buying their own computer and building their own reports, they leapt at the chance.
- PCs: PCs took off because IT eventually took over the minicomputers and continued to offer poor service. When workers got the option of buying their own computer and running their own spreadsheets, they once again leapt at the chance.
Here are pockets of disgruntlement I'm currently seeing:
- Anger at the cost of Microsoft products: If you add the cost of a Microsoft OS and Microsoft Office together, they now often cost more than the physical PC. People figure there's something wrong with this picture--which I think led to the great interest in Google Apps that I saw in Q1, 2007. This was not a rational reaction to the Google product's capabilities, but rather a visceral reaction to Microsoft's pricing strategies for Office. Depending on the cost of Microsoft's newly announced Microsoft Online product line (SaaS-based versions of Active Directory, Exchange 2007, Office Communication Server 2007, and SharePoint 2007), that anger may dissipate. While Office prices may still remain high, the cost of affiliated products will drop.
- Anger at Google's arrogance: I get an earful from clients about they perceive to be Google's arrogance: the refusal of the Google sales rep to return their calls (except when the rep wants to sell them something); Google's surprise at being told that there are product holes in Google Apps and so the enterprise won't buy the product (a large insurance company told me that an astonished Google sales rep blurted out to them: "But you have to buy it; we're Google"--as if brand equity solved everything). Netscape and Siebel committed the same crime of arrogance and it helped bring them down. I think such behavior is creating a window of opportunity for companies such as Cisco and Salesforce.com, who, while behind at targeting the collaboration and content space compared to Google, are much more pleasant to deal with.
While looking for disgruntled users is useful as an analyst trick, it also applies within a corporation. I first started looking for disgruntled users when I worked in IT. It was my way of proposing useful systems that the users hadn't yet requested. (They knew there was something missing, but they couldn't quite put their finger on it....) So if you work in IT, listen for the telltale phrases--they can be your ticket for developing a system your users will love.