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How far are we from blind software taste tests?

So many pieces of enterprise software, so little difference

Cola

Is the difference between Coke and Pepsi really any less than the difference between, say, Dropbox and box.net?

All of them were more or less revolutionary once, but they are all – essentially – pretty startlingly simple products. Sugar, caramel color, soda water. Personal freemium-based cloud storage.

Or consider most enterprise-level social media monitoring systems. Or project collaboration tools. Or CRM systems, for that matter. CMS systems shout about how different they are, which becomes yet another thing that makes them all alike.

As a new type of enterprise software succeeds in the market, it is quickly copied several times over. After a year or two, there’s little real difference to the casual user.

Vendors’ offerings will still differ at a spec-level, or – put more appropriately – a level that no one cares too much about, and rightly. Last year, MG Siegler noted how Consumer Reports spectacularly missed its predictions for the success of the iPhone 4, the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet, due to its unswerving focus on comparison of specs:

“Consumer Reports now matters just as much as specs do. Which is to say, not at all.”

So if specs do not matter to the masses, what will? That’s where, it seems to me, many software vendors stumble. Raised as they are on the mantra of practicality and “form follows function”, developers just keep tweaking knobs and tightening screws, convinced that will make the crucial difference.

In essence, it would seem they keep running from the competition by introducing new features, and dropping price as they hope to make up in volume what they are losing in premium. Is that the only way?

Siegler’s triumphant conclusion to his “The Death of the Spec” article is fitting: “Because really, who cares how the device sounds on paper? It’s how it feels that matters.” [emphasis Siegler’s]

Simply replace device with software and you have a recipe for much software today.

Sometimes, not often, you’ll see software or ideas that stick it in the ear of the “form follows function” crowd. The only immediate example that jumps to mind was Hipmunk’s glorious use of the “Agony Sort” in its air travel results. How unexpected. How delightful.

Most image and graphics editing packages possess an option to use magic on a file – it’ll guess what you’re aiming to do (usually called “auto-something or other”). That’s great, but it might be even more useful and inspirational if it could run simultaneously as I’m working, making suggestions. Not overshadowing my work space, but offering a small space for suggestion and variation.

As a writer, I would love a text editor that did that kind of thing. If I could have a small window analyzing text as I write, proposing topical references, quotes and ideas to influence my work, I think my writing would improve. It would be fun, exhilarating.

Simple, unnecessary efforts to introduce serendipity, delight and surprise – are these the new differentiation, the new software branding? It feels better than cutting prices and running.

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