In the pantheon of crimes against humanity, enterprise software falls way down the list. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't complain about horrifically bad user experiences.
And, in fact, we do. One of the primary reasons for the massive spread of shadow IT — generally underreported by 10X — is our desire to escape the imposition of terrible software (and hardware). Even behind our self-imposed firewalls, we want to use software with the simplicity of Google's search or the elegance of Apple's Mac OS X.
Today, Mesosphere announced the acquisition of design firm H1 Studios. While unremarkable on its face — hot but small startup acquires another startup — it signals a potential groundswell toward a brighter future of much better enterprise software.
After all, Mesosphere, the company behind Apache Mesos, offers a distributed kernel that basically helps enterprises scale their data center services like Google.
It's the stuff that infrastructure geeks dream of.
But now, apparently, it's going to get a serious design makeover even a marketer could love. I spent some time with H1 Studios co-founder John Ashenden, who will become Mesosphere's head of design as part of the acquisition, to better understand why enterprise software is so terrible and how design can improve it.
Why enterprise software makes us suffer
The primary problem with enterprise software is that it's built in a communist enclave. Well, not really, but it amounts to the same. Employees are forced to use their company's technology. It's all centrally managed. No one gets to choose, and employee satisfaction is often not the deciding factor in IT's software decisions.
As open-source luminary Miguel de Icaza opines, that lack of choice makes a huge difference in the consequent software the enterprise makes:
"[E]nterprise software is so bad because there is no competition, or the cost of migrating is so high. When users are locked, there is really no incentive to change the application to use something more polished. In some cases, the business calculation will be one where you want to just deliver a solution, and the polish is just something that you can afford to ignore."
Shadow IT, as mentioned, is one way that employees seek to circumvent the butt-ugly status quo, but other, larger forces are also at play.
Infrastructure software was supposed to be different. This is the realm inhabited by command line-loving uber geeks, the kind that insist on running Linux on their laptops.
Or used to.
As anyone that attends an O'Reilly conference can attest, even the hard-core programmers of the world now indulge themselves in Macs. Yes, it still gives them access to a UNIX command line, but it also lets them live much of their day in a beautifully designed software experience.
The rise of design
Across the spectrum of software, design has emerged in recent years as a key differentiator in the success of consumer and enterprise technology. Apple pioneered this path with its Macintosh Computer in 1984, and again in 2007 with the iPhone.
Top venture capital firms, such as Google Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and NEA (among others), have established design specialist practices in-house to support their portfolio companies. Facebook acquired design firm Hot Studio in 2013 to bolster its own design team.
Which brings us to Mesosphere's acquisition of H1 Studios. The New York-based web, mobile, and branding design firm has worked with market-leading brands, such as Bitly, Desk.com, Heroku, Phone.com, Quirky, Rdio, and, yes, Mesosphere. It's an interesting blend of consumer and geeky enterprise technology companies.
For Ashenden, what H1 Studios does should find its way into all enterprise software:
"The goal of design in software is to provide structure, set boundaries, delight the user at every touch-point, and build a clear line of communication with the individual using the product or tool. Why should 'enterprise software' be the exception?"
The obvious answer is "it shouldn't," but it's arguably easier to justify beautiful design for a social media app than software designed to "abstract CPU, memory, storage, and other compute resources away from machines (physical or virtual), enabling fault-tolerant and elastic distributed systems to easily be built and run effectively."
That's necessarily complex and, well... ugly, right?
The beast with 7,000 heads
Not according to Ashenden. But he's also not kidding himself that it will be easy. He calls the data center a "beast with 7,000 heads," and acknowledged that it's not a technology he and his H1 Studios team knows a lot about.
But that's the point. I asked him if there are any special considerations that need to be addressed when designing data center software. As he told me, the primary concern is "what we don't know about the [data center]," but "that concern is what tends to drive the best work."
H1 Studios will know it has succeeded when Ashenden and others like him can steer themselves through the tooling behind a Google-like data center. That's the mission he took on, and it's telling that Mesosphere would assume that burden.
After all, one of the world's greatest software franchises — Microsoft's server software business — was built on the back of Visual Basic and other tools that dramatically lowered the bar to becoming productive as a programmer, network administrator, and more.
With its acquisition of H1 Studios, Mesosphere seems determined to usher in the next Microsoft-esque era, making it easier and more intuitive than running a single server.
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.