It is said that software consumed hardware and now data consumes software. Although software is core to most businesses today, it is not easy to create a viable software business, or at least generate big profits by only selling software. And to make matters worse, there is currently a global shortage of software people. What should we conclude from all this? Can companies make money from software?
We see many trends in the software business:
- software has gone to the cloud and is sold as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS);
- data analytics (including Machine Learning and AI) have become an important part of needed software;
- many software components have become commodities or open source;
- more and more effective software development tools are now available;
- proprietary software offers competitive advantages, but software companies need to offer more scalable products.
When we look at these trends, it is plain to see that it is not easy to find a ready model to become a successful software company. One popular option is to sell top level software development capability, but that is not a very scalable model. Software companies must become more innovative, and we could even claim that business model competence has become more important in the software business than software competence itself – presuming you want to create something big.
Microsoft used to be representative of traditional software business. It provided software licenses mainly for PCs. Hardware vendors paid forand supplied the MS-DOS/Windows operating systems but customers paid for Office, that has now become a cloud-based SaaS. Apple is a leading hardware and software company, but after people pay for their iPhones they use services like the App Store, for their apps, music and content. Google has until now offered its Android operating system for free, although it now plans to introduce license fees, yet its main target has been to gather user data, offer ads and provide content and apps through its Google Play platform.
Then we have traditional B2B software companies like SAP, Oracle and Salesforce. Oracle has always had the most traditional license model. SAP also has license fees, but it is more a platform to develop actual applications. Salesforce, of course, is the famous SaaS pioneer, that now includes a lot of applications from third parties.
Actually, all these cases give an indication on how software businesses are developing. In each case you need to offer a very scalable system; effective channels to get it to users; but also the opportunity to build niche and tailored services and apps on top of it. This is the platform economy model to offer software and it is important to get enough services, service providers and users to the platform. However, the quality of the services can be more important than quantity.
It is hard to provide simple success factors for any software business (and even if I knew them, I probably wouldn’t publish them), but we can list components that seem to help:
- Offer very scalable platform to use your software from cloud;
- Open your platform to third party applications and open source components that can offer targeted apps for users;
- Take care of the user experience and quality of the service and apps;
- Offer tools and engines that enable customers and developers make more tailored and proprietary apps based on your system;
- Engage and motivate developers to use your system.
Of course, many parties try to follow this route now. Quality and usability are probably the key success factor to be successful in this game. It is, for example, easy to make compromises on the quality and just focus on attracting lots of apps or developers, but this can be harmful in a longer run.
Is data eating software? It is probably a topic for its own article, and it is not so simple. I think the comment is used to mean that it is more important to own and utilize data than software. It is clear that for companies like Google and Facebook it is like this, although they have good software to use data. Maybe Amazon belongs with these companies, too.
But the latest issues with data misuse, breaches, and privacy make this more complex. Data will be important, but who owns it and who has the right to use it is becoming more complex. Maybe people will opt to get their own data back and be willing to use good software solutions to utilize it, like personal AI services.
Business models are funny things. When a strategy consultant formulates a winning concept, innovative entrepreneurs work on the next big thing that will beat the old model. If you are a good software developer, you can make good money by coding, but if you want to create something much bigger, then you must innovate and create a new business model as well.
The software business is like the music, movie or game business – you could make it big with some luck, but to build systematic success you need a platform and distribution channels to offer so much more than just luck. It is then more about orchestrating than coding.