Our industry has a problem, and it has to do with words. We use the same words to mean different things, and different words to mean the same thing. In particular, there is a problem with naming categories of technology or products. Consider the terms grid computing, utility computing, on-demand computing, high-performance computing. Some people see them all as referring to the same thing. Others believe there are nuances among them, and yet others feel they refer to completely different things. Now, also add to the mix the terms fabric, virtualization, distributed computing -- all of which are also frequently used to refer to similar -- if not the same -- things, and you've got a big mess.
I was thinking about this because it seems that GigaSpaces, and the tech category it belongs to, is now at a point where it is crossing the proverbial chasm from early adopters to mainstream customers. And an important part of maturing is having a clear and consistent name for the product category.
This Tower of Babel phenomenon occurs partly by coincidence -- different people come up with different words to describe what they or others are doing more or less at the same time. But partly, this is happening by design.
I see three main reasons for this (in no particular order):
Reason 1: The prevailing Silicon Valley common wisdom of marketing technology is based on Geoffrey Moore's seminal Crossing the Chasm. In it, Moore writes that if you are introducing a new technology, invent a new category for it and position yourself as the leader.
So you've now got thousands of vendors -- start-ups or established -- inventing new categories and crowning themselves supreme leader of the category. For example, the terms Business Service Management (BSM) emerged to describe the suite of application development, testing and monitoring tools provided by vendors such as BMC Software. To establish itself as a leader in its category, Mercury Interactive (now part of HP) went ahead and created the competing term Business Technology Optimization (BTO). You now have two terms referring to what is essentially the same thing.
Reason 2: Competing analysts need to make their mark on the world. The Forresters and Gartners of the world want to be able to say "I called it." So they describe an emerging trend -- and name it. For professional prestige reasons, the competing analyst firm cannot use the other firm's terminology, so they describe the same phenomenon in a slightly different way and give it a different name. Luckily, the big analyst firms have consolidated and there are only a few of them now, but on the other hand, there is a growing number of boutique firms, Wall Street analysts, the press, the blogosphere -- all throwing their own phrases into the mix.
So as an example from my own experience with GigaSpaces: Gartner categorizes us under the general area of Extreme Transaction Processing (XTP). Within it, they place us in two sub-categories: Grid-Based Application Platforms (where they name GigaSpaces as the leader and include vendors such as Appistry) and Distributed Caching Platforms (Where they name GigaSpaces as the leader together with Tangosol/Oracle). Forrester categorizes us under the umbrella of the Information Fabric (and more recently Information-as-a-Service (IaaS), and within it in the sub-category "Data Grid." The various vendors in the spaces use any and all of these terms, as well as things like "Data Fabric" and "Clustered JVM."
Reason 3: "The king is dead; long live the king!" What do you do if you provide hosted application services, commonly known as an Application Service Provider (ASP), but no one wants to touch that with a ten-foot pole, because of the billions of VC investments lost in that category during the dot-com bust? You invent a new name for the category: you call it Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). Presto! Out with the old and un-sexy; in with the new and trendy.
The reason this is an industry-wide problem that we should all care about is because the confusion caused by this creates an impediment to the adoption of new technologies.
Moore states this concisely when he writes:
Potential customers cannot buy what they cannot name, nor can they seek out the product unless they know what category to look under.
Our industry is already dealing fairly competently with a similar issue: technology standards. Why not apply the same approaches to "marketing standards"? Sure, reaching technology standards is often a lengthy process, fraught with political maneuvering and compromise, but at the end of the day it works. And the reason it works is because vendors realize that lack of standards are a barrier to overall adoption of their products. It's an issue of increasing the size of the overall pie, and not just fighting for a slightly bigger slice of a small pie.
So borrowing from the tech standards approach, here are a few possible ideas to consider when it comes to technology category naming conventions:
- A Standards Body -- made of analyst firms, vendors and other stakeholders
- A Community Process -- similar to the Java Community Process (JCP)
- And my favorite: A Wikipedia-like model (perhaps with some modifications making it a hybrid with a standards body). So for example, under the entry Object Spaces in Wikipedia, it says: "It has been suggested that this article or section be merged into Tuple space. (Discuss)". Besides a discussion process, one can also imagine a polling function and actual voting.
Some of this will always remain a problem, because the different products in a ctegory don't usually overlap 100% and therefore it does make some sense to categorize them differently. It will also remain a problem because vendors, and perhaps rightly so, will always want to claim their turf and have the game played by their rules. This also happens with technology standards. But still, seems to me that there is a lot of room for improvement.