December 1, 2015

Historical notes on artificial intelligence

This is part of a three post series spanning two blogs.

0. The concept of artificial intelligence has been around almost as long as computers — or even before, if you recall that robots were imagined by the 1920s. But for a while it was mainly academic and perhaps military/natural security research. There’s been a robotics industry for over 50 years. But otherwise, when I first became an analyst in 1981, AI commercialization efforts were rather new, and were concentrated in three main areas:

1. If I’ve ever gotten too close to a group of companies, it was probably the 1980s AI vendors. I unfortunately earned investment banking fees by encouraging people into money-losing investments in all three areas cited above, in Teknowledge, Artificial Intelligence Corporation and Symbolics respectively. I dated women who worked for Symbolics and Teknowledge. I wrote and performed a satirical song about Inference at an employee party for Intellicorp. Accordingly, when I write about individual companies in the sector, I fear that I may go on at self-indulgent length. So I’ll save all that for another time, and content myself now with a brief and dry survey that does little more than establish some context.

2. The 1980s also saw military-funded research into autonomous vehicles, as well as continued efforts in robotics and machine vision. Frankly, there wasn’t a lot of commercial overlap between these areas and the rest of AI at that time, and the rest of AI is what I tracked more closely.

But in one counterexample, a machine vision company named Machine Intelligence spun off a company that was building a PC DBMS with some natural language query capability. The spin-off company was Symantec. (Obviously, Symantec his pivoted multiple times since.) Machine Intelligence cofounder Earl Sacerdoti also wound up at expert system vendor Teknowledge for a while. So maybe there was more overlap in theory than there was in commercial practice.  Read more

November 11, 2015

Notes on the technology supporting packaged application software

This is part of a three-post series on enterprise application software over the decades, meant to serve as background to a DBMS2 post on issues in enterprise apps.

o. I’d like to discuss the technology underneath packaged application software. To create some hope of the discussion being coherent, let’s split apps into a few categories:

1. The idea of bundling ERP (or its predecessor MRP) with an underlying DBMS has been around for a long time.

And for smaller enterprises, it has been the norm, not the exception.

Read more

November 11, 2015

Enterprise application software — vertical and departmental markets

This is part of a three-post series on enterprise application software over the decades, meant to serve as background to a DBMS2 post on issues in enterprise apps.

1. When I started as an analyst in 1981, manufacturers seemed to still be over 40% of the IT market. For them, the distinction between “cross-industry” and “vertical market” application software wasn’t necessarily clear. Indeed, ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) can be said to have grown out of the combination of MRP and accounting software, although it never was a manufacturing-specific industry category. ERP also quickly co-opted what was briefly its own separate category, namely SCM (Supply Chain Management) software.

2. Manufacturing aside, other important early vertical markets were banking, insurance and health care. It is no coincidence that these are highly regulated industries; regulations often gave a lot of clarity as to how software should or shouldn’t work. Indeed, the original application software package category was probably general ledger, and the original general ledger packages were probably for banks rather than cross-industry.

Read more

November 11, 2015

Enterprise application software — generalities

This is part of a three-post series on enterprise application software over the decades, meant to serve as background to a DBMS2 post on issues in enterprise apps.

1. There can actually be significant disagreement as to what is or isn’t an enterprise application. I tend to favor definitions that restrict the category to (usually) server software, which manages transactions, customer interactions, financial records and things like that. Some other definitions are even more expansive, including personal productivity software such as Microsoft Office, computer-aided engineering systems and the like.

2.  Historically, application software has existed mainly to record and route information, commonly from people to machines and back. Indeed, one could say that applications are characterized by (up to) five (overlapping) aspects, which may be abbreviated as:

The first four of those five items fit into my “record and route information” framework.

Read more

August 7, 2015

Application databases

In my recent post on data messes, I left an IOU for a discussion of application databases. I’ve addressed parts of that subject before, including in a 2013 post on data model churn and a 2012 post on enterprise application history, both of which cite examples mentioned below. Still, there’s a lot more that could be said, because the essence of an operational application is commonly its database design. So let’s revisit some history.

In many cases, installing an application allows enterprises to collect the underlying data, electronically, for the first time ever. In other cases the app organizes data that was already there in some previous form. Either way, applications tend to greatly change the way data is managed and stored.

Read more

March 30, 2015

Corporate culture in enterprise IT — the dignity crowd

These days, when one thinks of corporate culture in the tech industry, what comes to mind are probably:

Most of that is at the internet companies, although there are exceptions — any kind of companies can have ping-pong tables, beanbag chairs, and a bunch of dogs* running around the office.

*I mean literal pooches, not bad products. WibiData used to even post headshots of the dogs on their employee page.

But there was a time, before the internet era, when similar things could be said of enterprise IT companies. The biggest fuss about culture was perhaps made among the more buttoned-down crowd, including IBM (most famously), MSA (the example that made me think of this subject), and EDS (who commissioned a Ken Follett book about themselves). They are all I have space for in this post. But there were also the beginnings of recognizable Silicon Valley start-up culture, and I hope to discuss that in the future.

The dignity crowd

I still chuckle when I see an IBMer in a company-issued polo shirt, because there was a time when IBM had a strict dress code of conservative suits and ties. Along with that went never drinking alcohol in a customer setting, in an era when boozy business meals were the norm. The point of all these rules, I think, was twofold. First, IBM wanted to be seen as a trusted, dignified adviser to customer organizations. Second, IBM generally wanted some kind of rules so that the behemoth corporation would be a team.

And IBM was more than a collection of people; it was an organization. Employees with 20+ year service might average one city-to-city move per year. (Hence the joke that IBM stood for I’ve Been Moved.) But whoever was involved with your account — if your systems stopped working, IBM would do whatever it took to get you back running fast. And a large fraction of IBM’s sales effort was spreading FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) as to whether rival vendors would care for customers equally well.

EDS (Electronic Data Systems, founded by Ross Perot) fancied itself as a cross between IBM and the US military. Even computer operators had to be clean-shaven and wear jacket and tie. A large fraction of hires were military veterans,* and an extreme “Do it now! No excuses for failure will be accepted!” ethos flowed through the company.  Read more

March 30, 2015

John Imlay, the jolliest huckster

John Imlay passed away last week. Let me start by saying:

*Not as persuasive is the story about the missed chance to buy Microsoft in 1981. I knew a LOT of folks at MSA in the 1980s, and nobody ever mentioned that. Also, the story has an obviously wrong Microsoft fat (what city it was in).

John Imlay was a showman, best known for giving speeches with live animals or other dramatic visual aids, as per this short 1994 New York Times interview. But he was also a tireless, lead-from-the-front seller. An MSA salesman who booked John into an exhausting schedule of sales calls could expect a return visit from his CEO soon, because he was using Imlay’s time optimally. Indeed, I didn’t really know John all that well, probably for a couple of reasons:

Read more

September 22, 2014

Larry Ellison memories

Larry Ellison had an official job change, and will be CTO and Executive Chairman of Oracle — with the major product groups reporting to him — instead of CEO. I first met Larry 31 years ago, and hung out with him quite a bit at times. So this feels like time for a retrospective.

For starters, let me say:

Some anecdotes: Read more

July 11, 2014

20th Century DBMS success and failure

As part of my series on the keys to and likelihood of success, I’d like to consider some historical examples in various categories of data management.

A number of independent mainframe-based pre-relational DBMS vendors “crossed the chasm”, but none achieved anything resembling market dominance; that was reserved for IBM. Success when they competed against each other seemed to depend mainly on product merits and the skills of individual sales people or regional sales managers.

IBM killed that business by introducing DB2, a good product with very good strategic marketing from a still-dominant vendor. By “very good strategic marketing” I mean that IBM both truly invented and successfully market-defined the relational DBMS concept, including such conceptual compromises as:

In the minicomputer world, however, hardware vendors lacked such power, and independent DBMS vendors thrived. Indeed, Oracle and Ingres rode to success on the back of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and other minicomputer vendors, including the payments they got to port their products to various platforms.* The big competitive battle was Oracle vs. Ingres, about which I can say for starters: Read more

March 24, 2014

IDG and me

I never met IDG founder Pat McGovern, who was the kind of tycoon that traveled around the world handing Christmas bonuses personally to every employee in his firm. Even so, McGovern’s passing seems like an occasion for recollections about IDG through the decades. And so:

1. My connections have always been much stronger with IDG (International Data Group) publications than with the analyst firm IDC that’s also part of the business.

2. I have at times been pretty connected to those pubs. For example:

3. Computerworld has probably always been the leading enterprise technology publication, including during the trade press’ glory years. Most memorably, pre-relational mainframe DBMS were claiming with some success to be “relational”. But when Computerworld reported Ted Codd’s “rules” for RDBMS, that was that — RDBMS were defined to be what Codd and Computerworld said they were, and the bottom dropped out of the market for DBMS that didn’t meet Codd’s criteria.

4. In line with its industry leadership, Computerworld had a classified ad section that ran dozens of pages. When I hired a research assistant in my stock analyst days, the obvious choice was to run the ad there.

5. To this day, if an ego-surf shows that I’ve been quoted in countries and languages around the world — Brazil, Australia, Iran or whatever — it’s usually something I said to IDG, which then translated and republished it around the world.

6. IDG is a big enough press organization not to be perfect. Read more

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