Telephones, ISVs and Other Antiques: Part Two

(Part One on this subject appeared in the January 11, 1995 issue of Midrange Systems.)

Almost every year, it seems that another term in the telecommunications industry becomes obsolete. That's not surprising because - whereas past product development focused on isolated products with distinct functions and niches - the focus today is on technology integration and cross platform utility.

So whereas yesterday's "answering machine" became today's multi-functioned "voice mail," the ordinary telephone has metamorphosed into portables and cellulars and the "mainframe" of the early 1980s belongs in a dusty museum somewhere. So, also, the term, Independent Software Vendor (ISV), has outlived its usefulness. As a notable example, IBM has dramatically altered its way of developing and marketing software products to the business and consumer segments.

Let's look at IBM's past. As recently as the early 1980s, IBM hadn't yet shaken its primary identity as a hardware provider. And if it did market and sell software, it was as a necessary add-on for its loyal hardware customers. Yet today, IBM's hardware, software and service sales are fundamentally linked to a total "business solution." In fact, Big Blue sells more software and services than any global competitor. Yet IBM isn't even listed as an ISV, a term that seems to be used, perpetually, to describe all software companies (systems and application) other than IBM.

The "ISVs," in fact, refer to an outdated notion that isolated software companies provide products that isolated hardware companies package with their products to sell. Those days are gone. As lines of function between telecommunications products continue to blur and meld, developers of technology are keeping a very close watch on each other, braced for the next technology that will take the market by storm. Technology manufacturers can't afford to operate as independent islands anymore, and that goes for software providers as well.

Equally as important as IBM achieving its goal to become a provider of both hardware and software, the company has been strongly emphasizing cross-platform adaptability with its new products - for example, with its AS/400 series and its recent launch of Websphere products.

So to say things like, "The ISV's will be writing for the Workplace shell" - phrases we continue to read in trade magazines -- just doesn't hold water. The industry has changed, yet the term ISV continues to hang around.

I must confess, I had a hand in creating that term in the first place. Seventeen years ago, I was the person responsible for marketing programs for software and services companies for IBM, the "Hardware Company." Yet we found that many hardware companies (names such as Digital Equipment, Hewlett-Packard, and even IBM come to mind) were busy developing software as well. So to distinguish between hardware vendors that developed software on a secondary level and companies whose primary business was software, we called these latter companies "Independent Software Vendors" or ISVs. Needless to say, the term stuck.

The consequence, of course, is that software divisions of companies that also happen to sell hardware are not listed along with other software vendors. Seventeen years ago, perhaps this explanation was still viable: "Hardware companies sell software that their products need to run, but those products don't compete with the ISVs." Well, no more. Today, for example, IBM's OS/2 and RS/6000 compete head-on with Windows programs. And its database products compete directly with names like Oracle, Sybase and Informix.

Reality has changed. Lines continue to blur between categories, and between new and emerging technologies. That's what progress is about.

Think about it. You probably don't miss your door-to-door encyclopedia salesman, when you're busy accessing the CD-ROM Worldbook Encyclopedia software that came pre-loaded on your new PC. By the same token, don't pine for the old term ISV.

Now I am appealing to ALL of you who read this column regularly to correct the presentation speakers, their charts, and just common usage of the term, ISV, everywhere you spot it. And tell the violators to use "software vendors", "software providers", "solution providers", "software developers" and/or any term other than ISV !

What's important isn't the word - it's the function. So if the term ISV has become obsolete, that's okay. Along with the old mainframe, maybe it, too, can be dusted off one day and valued as an antique.