Executives lock horns in battle of the business models

Any residual respect for industrial economy philosophies took a beating at InfoWorld’s CTO Forum here Wednesday after two speakers revived the idea that some “new economy” ideas will play a vital role in the corporate enterprise.

But today’s protagonists come from completely different ends of the technology spectrum.

In the “red corner” stood Jeffrey Henley, executive vice president and CFO at Oracle Corp. in Redwood Shores, Calif., who said during his address that self-service, business-to-business applications promise to create the efficiencies needed for the current economic climate.

Henley’s message included a prediction that Oracle will save US$1 billion this year from e-business initiatives, in addition to the $1 billion already achieved last year, as CEO Larry Ellison had previously predicted.

Henley’s premise is a familiar one to the post-dot-com community. “The thing that gets buying up is if you can cut costs,” he said.

Using Oracle itself as the test case, Henley said the company has achieved efficiencies by moving incremental call-center volumes to the Internet. The savings include a complete halt on employing call-center staff during the last two years after previously hiring as many as 2,000 per year.

“I believe we’re all going to find more ways to do things over the Internet through self-service applications,” Henley said.

But he noted that the technology is still in its infancy despite Oracle’s 1,000 demonstrations of its software via the Internet last year.

Meanwhile, in the “blue corner” was Alan Cooper, “father” of Visual Basic, who used his lunch time address to argue that simply aiming to improve business by reducing overhead is a legacy of the Industrial Age.

Cooper, a consultant who preaches a pre-software development methodology known as “Interaction Design” and named his company after it, believes the new adages for the business environment should be adaptability, flexibility, and scalability.

“Dot-coms were the last gas of the industrial economy,” Cooper said.

Central to Cooper’s belief is the idea that software development has lost sight of the end-user. “It’s all about defining what done looks like before you program a single line of code,” he said. “The only magic bullet is honestly knowing and catering for your users,” he continued. “Somebody needs to be responsible in your organization for customer satisfaction.”

And in a clear stab at the often-flawed development efforts of software vendors, Cooper called Oracle 9i “just another technology,” and noted that despite repeated assertions from Microsoft Corp., the GUI and speech recognition has not solved user woes. Also under fire by Cooper was SAP AG R/3, which he said has technical proficiency but lacks ease of use for end-users. “The people using it lead lives of quiet desperation,” he said.

Cooper also took a shot at the trend to incorporate applications into browsers. “Finders [browsers] and shells [operating systems] are weak programs,” he asserted. “Netscape was like an epidemic that swept through the industry.”