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Relentless Change Threatens Tech Giants Too

One of the big trends we follow here at Via Meadia to try to figure out what’s going on in the world is the impact of technology driven change on our institutions and our lives. An interesting article over at PandoDaily shows how even the titans of the tech world like database giant Oracle are challenged by the tsunami of innovation and the restructuring it brings.

Oracle has traditionally thrived in the business application space. Larry Ellison, Oracle’s founder and Silicon Valley icon, had figured out how to lock in clients to his products and services: Big business is risk-averse when it comes to tech infrastructure, so innovation is not the driver of sales. Predictability and reliable support matter more than the latest bells and whistles, and in a lot of corporate environments nobody ever gets fired for going with dull and predictable when it comes to basic tech systems.

Even the mind-boggling complexity of the products had a perverse upside in keeping these clients locked in: Training a massive staff in a new system would prove prohibitively expensive. Like QWERTY keyboards, old and clunky software platforms were protected by their very irrationality.

But convenience and consistency over ease of use and quality may not be cutting it any more in enterprise. A generation of employees raised on collaborative internet tools like Facebook and Twitter—tools that are intuitive and work as advertised—are starting to demand the same kind of simple functionality from the software they use at work. PandoDaily mentions the web app Asana as an example of the kind of products that the millennials are forcing into the enterprise over the heads of their CIOs. Via Meadia and TAI, though we’re hardly enterprise-scale, have been using Asana for a few weeks now, and we’re very impressed at how well it works.

But Via Meadia wouldn’t count Oracle out so soon. The culture of change is in the DNA of even the biggest firms in Silicon Valley in a way that’s just not true of older, less flexible industries. Both Microsoft and Apple made deep changes to survive; Oracle isn’t ready to give up the ghost.

That’s a snapshot of America in 2012. Technology changes society, society changes technology. Via Meadia isn’t sure which is the chicken and which is the egg, but we don’t see any shortage of either chickens or eggs anytime soon. Meanwhile, we are liking Asana.

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  • Corlyss

    “But convenience and consistency over ease of use and quality may not be cutting it any more in enterprise.”

    I’ll believe that when businesses and governments junk their MS based software/hardware and replace them all with Apple computers. Heck, I’ll believe that when the IRS finally accomplishes the tax systems modernization that has been its goal for 45 years and tosses its rickety legacy systems that keep 50% of its workforce employeed.

  • Brett

    The culture of change is in the DNA of even the biggest firms in Silicon Valley in a way that’s just not true of older, less flexible industries. Both Microsoft and Apple made deep changes to survive; Oracle isn’t ready to give up the ghost.

    But for Microsoft and Apple, there are a fair number of counter-examples. Yahoo is still struggling to find a place in this world. AOL is trying to become a content provider, and only surviving because of its rather dubious ways of maintaining dial-up subscribers.

  • techy3

    PandoDaily is a “media outlet” owned by Venture Capitalists who among other things, happen to own equity in Asana. The “interesting article” WRM cites above is in all liklihood “sponsored content” written by Asana’s or their investors’ PR departments. For the full story on this sordid practice see here:

    If Via Meadia is going to link to and repeat this sort of content WRM should disclose whether or not his blog is also “sponsored” or has “content facilitated” for them by Asana or their VCs as PandoDaily does and whether TAI has been given any incentives by Asana for providing this sort of publicity.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      No hidden hands are involved. We happen to like that particular product and use it, but nobody paid us to say anything about it. And paid content on this site is identified as advertisements.

  • Corlyss


    I really wouldn’t care unless WRM didn’t use the product at all. I don’t care if sites are sponsored or not as long as the content is true. Why should I? Why should you?

  • srp

    Since their demo page crashed Safari on my iPad the first time I clicked through, I think I will hold off on my expectations for this service.

  • Andrew Allison

    Re: “One of our big analytical lenses we use here at Via Meadia is to examine . . . .”

    May one presume that this was written by an apprentice? ;>)

    • Walter Russell Mead

      The house of pain has a new resident.

  • Andrew Allison

    As to the content, having (mis?)spent a career in the computer industry, I’d like to offer some inside observations.
    First, it appears to me to be the objective of virtually every technology company to lock clients into its technology. It’s a competitive hurdle which incents competitors to build a better mouse trap. RIM (manufacturer of the Blackberry) is the current example of what results.
    Apple, on the other hand is the definitive example of a company which, at least since the return of Jobs, has kept running. Microsoft, in contrast, has not. Being incapable of innovation, the company spends most of its time copying others and fending off applications competition by making changes to break compatibility rather than enhance the product. That,IMO, is why (with a couple of brief exceptions) its stock has traded in the $26-$32 range for the past decade.
    As the (retired) analyst who forecast the ascendency of the ARM architecture a decade-and-a-half ago, allow me to suggest that the PC is on its last legs and the future lies with tablets and smart clients.

  • Damir Marusic

    I’d just like to second WRM’s reply that neither he nor The American Interest has any stake in Asana whatsoever. We really have discovered it on our own a few weeks ago and it has greatly improved our ability to coordinate staff working in two different locations (stately Mead Manor in Queens and the TAI offices in DC).

    As to PandoDaily being a “media outlet” (commenter’s scare-quotes) that’s shilling for Asana, it’s certainly news to us. None of us had read the Dan Lyons article on the matter, and from the look of it, it seems to be part of a larger ongoing drama which just took a turn for the ugly and personal.

    As is sometimes the case, the genesis for this post came from a conversation. I’m a reader of PandoDaily, and during Walter Mead’s most recent trip to the TAI offices, I highlighted the article to him for comment. I’ve been reading Sarah Lacy’s work since she was at TechCrunch, and I added Pando to my reading list when she left TechCrunch to found it. As you can read here, Ms. Lacy, put off by the sale of TechCrunch to AOL, says she started Pando in order to preserve her independence. She does admit to taking seed money from VCs, but claims to have no stake herself in any of the companies she covers, and promises to disclose any conflicts of interest in her writings.

    We don’t know Ms. Lacy or any of the Pando people at all, so we’ve reached out to them for comment. The allegations in the Dan Lyons piece are serious and should not be taken lightly by any publication.

  • Damir Marusic

    As a reader (not as a TAI staffer), I’d like to respond to Andrew Allison and others. Re: Microsoft, we’ll see how they do with their ARM tablets and Windows 8. I’m a big Apple enthusiast and will be upgrading to an iPad 3, but I can’t say that Microsoft’s upcoming Windows tablets haven’t intrigued me. If they’re able to leverage the Office suite on their offerings, they’ll have a huge leg up with business users who currently make do with all sorts of workarounds on their iPads. Microsoft has been stagnating for a while, especially under Steve Ballmer’s watch, but they seem to be on the road to some kind of reinvention. Steven Sinofsky, the head of the Windows division, seems to have the right ideas. I think WRM was right to include Microsoft as a company with great capacity for reinvention, especially in contrast with the Detroit automotive dinosaurs.

    As for Oracle’s chances for continued success, I’d say the likelihood of that is anyone’s guess. If you read the comments to that Pando post, you’ll see some former Oracle employees grousing about the stodgy salesman-dominated atmosphere. But you should also remember that the idea for thin clients and network computers was originally the brainchild of Larry Ellison himself. It’s true, his vision was 20 years too early, but Ellison is a smart man and a clever entrepreneur. I’d certainly not count him out.

  • Cathleen

    I have the misfortune of working with Oracle’s products daily, and have the sense that the company has simply spread itself too thin. New releases of products are full of bugs — I realize that ALL new releases are full of bugs, but Oracle’s are orders of magnitude buggier than any other products I use. Their support is atrocious – by far the worst I’ve worked with in my 25 years of I/T work. They would do well to concentrate on their core products and improve support before branching out even further.

  • Jim

    Just wanted to say that IBM should be on any list of companies that have transformed themselves. Consider where it was around 1993 or 1994, when people were suggesting that it was about to go under or to be sold off in pieces. Lou Gerstner proved you can teach an elephant to dance and Sam Palmisano continued to promote change and growth. IBM’s stock has more than doubled over the past three years. I’m not saying it is a perfect company, but it sure managed to have a miraculous rebirth.

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