By Olin Reams
In the search for business software, companies have a habit of turning to the 800-pound gorillas (i.e. products from large corporations) in the room. Gorillas, however, do not have the motor skills to create applications that meet highly specific needs. Today, companies are more likely to find unique capabilities and achieve greater productivity by turning to niche software developers.
The search for niche developers and specialized products is a trend we see not just in software, but in a multitude of industries. Beer lovers turn away from national beers in the search for the best craft breweries. Music lovers forgo the radio’s top ten lists in favor of Indy bands. Foodies turn to farmer’s markets and independent restaurants for ingredients and dishes that cannot be found anywhere else.
Consumers demand greater personalization, quality and singularity in their products, and the same is increasingly true of companies.
The problem is that, by nature, large software companies can leave their customers behind. The freelance developer in a café can only survive by responding attentively to the customers’ needs. In contrast, the mega-corporations have had the scale and clout to tell consumers here’s what you get and you better like it.
By not addressing many of their customer’s requirements, large software corporations have created opportunities for niche developers who can produce enterprise-quality products with small business responsiveness. They win market share by fulfilling needs unmet by the Microsoft, Apple, and many others.
This does mean that Microsoft and other tech giants have anything to worry about. Beer snobs still drink Bud Light, music aficionados still know the words to Justin Beiber songs, and foodies still eat McDonalds. In fact, smart corporations will benefit from paying attention to how smaller developers challenge their products.
Niche software developers are here stay and flourish, and their products will enable greater productivity than brand-name solutions. Here’s why:
1) Choice in Corporate Environments
Forward-thinking organizations realize that employees love choice and do better work when they get certain freedoms.
Cisco, for instance, lets employees use a Mac or PC and to use whatever software they prefer. They hire smart people who know their needs better than the IT department.
This democratization is incompatible with the command, “Thou shalt only use this or that.” Liberal software policies make niche software a viable and desirable choice.
The bring-your-own-device revolution has been a mixed bag for corporations. In some cases, it motivates workers to do more work at home or on the road, and it lets employees configure work devices to their specific needs. In other cases, it creates security headaches.
Either way, BYOD is here to stay, and in lightly regulated BYOD environments, one can find people who will select Evernote over OneNote, Google Docs over Word docs and Prezi over PowerPoint. Great applications that begin as the forbidden fruit (i.e. Dropbox) can now become mainstream in BYOD organizations.
3) Bundled but Bungled
Big software companies try to make the equivalent of your shampoo-conditioner combo, crossovers, hybrid bikes and multi-tools. However, we all know that separate shampoo and conditioner is better, a Jeep will fare better off road than a crossover, a road bike is faster than a hybrid, and some jobs call for a real screwdriver.
Someone out there has a good reason for running MS Excel, Thunderbird, Google Docs, SlideShare and Safari on the same computer.
Not every chocolate in the box tastes good, and not every program in a software package works well.
4) Real Integration
The supposed integrations between in brand-name software packages are underwhelming. Ever tried syncing your Word documents to Windows Live SkyDrive? It’s integrated into Word 2010, but it’s slow and not as convenient when compared to Dropbox, Box and Google Drive.
Niche software developers have the advantage of integrating with the best available software.
The automatic feedback we provide to Microsoft, Apple and other large developers is probably used to correct some bugs. However, if you think you can get on the phone with one their developers and convince them to create this integration, add that feature or bring back some button, good luck.
Inside many big software companies, there is a healthy top down and bottom up dialogue, but client feedback is secondary to that conversation. Ultimately, the immediate incentives within giant corporations encourage engineers to please coworkers and superiors before customers.
The interests of niche software companies closely align with the needs of their customers. They exist because they fulfilled a need unmet by big developers, and they know they can drive repeat business and new revenue if they maintain that goal. Therefore, feedback from clients has far greater potential to influence updates and new products at niche development firms.
By dogmatically using big name software, organizations can stifle productivity, creativity, and the frontline wisdom of their employees. Like craft brewers, Indy musicians and foodies, small developers have benefited from the advancements, best practices and the mistakes of larger organizations. Indeed, it is the shared experience of using mainstream software that gives smaller developers an ambient awareness of problems and a target audience for solutions. In a sense, big software companies created the problems that niche developers solve.
Microsoft, Apple and other large developers may have climbed the mountain first, but non-brand names will continue to find better routes.
About the Author: