I recently wrote a long post on the premise that enterprise analytic applications are not like the other (operational) kind. That begs the question(s): What are operational enterprise applications like?
Historically, the essence of enterprise applications has been data management — they capture business information, then show it to you. User interfaces are typically straightforward in the UI technology of the era — forms, reports, menus, and the like. The hard part of building enterprise applications is getting the data structures right. That was all true in the 1970s; it’s all still true today.
Indeed, for many years, the essence of an application software acquisition was the database design. Maintenance streams were often unimportant; code would get thrown out and rewritten. But the application’s specific database structure would be adapted into an extension to the acquirer’s own.
Examples that come to mind from the pre-relational era include:
- Bill of materials planning. This was before even my time, but it seems to have been a big part of what kicked off the whole DBMS industry, even though manufacturing applications then spent a decade not being DBMS-based.
- Order entry/accounts receivable. This was a tough problem from the mid 1970s though the mid 1980s or so. In particular, accounts receivable stumped John Landry at three consecutive companies — McCormack & Dodge, Distribution Management Systems, and Cullinet — before he claimed to finally have figured it out.
- Multi-currency support, about which I had an exchange that may be paraphrased as:
- Pat Tinley of Ross Systems: “I’ve finally figured out how to do multi-currency right.”
- Me: “Didn’t you tell me that at MSA?”
- Pat: “I was wrong then.”
- Process manufacturing, and the co-products/byproducts it entailed. This led to the one significant patent suit outcome in enterprise software history, in which Marcam really did chase Ross Systems’ product off the market.
A shining relational-era example is SAP’s inclusion of workflow as a central aspect of 1990s application design.
The resulting apps, however, are cumbersome — very cumbersome. They’re cumbersome to use. They’re cumbersome to install. They’re cumbersome to change. People who use enterprise applications feel trapped in a bureaucratic hell. That is why I agree with the sentiment that operational enterprise applications are the verge of significant change.