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Arabesque: The '93 Press Release
Quick Facts: The Arabesque Team
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EccoPro: A business case?
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EccoPro as a business case?
By Chris Thompson

This is an excellent question, and one I've thought about many times.

The closest business analog to the Ecco situation was what happened to Wordperfect (and the associated Wordperfect Office applications) during the same period.

Keep in mind that the market was not purely competitive. At the time, Microsoft was engaged in an anticompetitive pricing scheme, whereby computer OEMs would be charged less for their Windows bulk purchases if they agreed to bundle Office with every machine sold in certain product lines. If they gave computer purchasers the choice whether or not to buy Office along with their machines, the OEM's bulk prices for Windows would rise, making their computer prices less competitive in the market. This is why, if you tried to buy a computer from Dell, HP, Packard Bell, or any of the larger players during the 1996-1999 timeframe, you will remember that in most cases, unlike today, you could not choose *not* to buy Office along with your computer. Many consumers are not aware of this. There were actually two antitrust cases filed against Microsoft in the late 90s, one federal and one from the states. The states' case did include the Office tying issue, but it was dropped from the antitrust case when the states' and federal case was combined into one.

In any case, the situation from 1996-1999 was that, due to this anticompetitive pricing scheme, most consumers of business machines from the larger OEMs were forced to purchase Office, even if they ultimately also were purchasing Wordperfect Office or Lotus Smartsuite. The only large OEM that was not participating in this behavior was IBM, who paid higher prices for Windows because of it. This put severe pressure on makers of competitive software, including Ecco. How many people would go out and buy Wordperfect Office or Ecco when Microsoft Office was bundled with their machines, and they had no option to unbundle it? Microsoft's market share increased greatly during this period, and the resulting network effects due to document compatibility propelled it even further.

In the retail software market, the story was somewhat different. Retail consumers did have a legitimate choice of what product to buy, and at the retail level Ecco sold very well. I believe that it was the top seller in its market segment, outselling Outlook, for several quarters up until 1997. The same was true of Wordperfect Office. When Corel dropped the price of Wordperfect Office, it outsold Microsoft Office at the retail level for at least one quarter a year as late as 1998.

Ecco could have continued as a commercial product, just as Wordperfect Office did, and it is interesting to consider how the Netmanage and Corel business strategies diverged when confronted with the growing dominance of Office.

(As an aside, one interesting "what if" move would have been for Corel to purchase Ecco instead of InfoCentral as the basis for their suite's PIM. InfoCentral was another "alternative" PIM with interesting data linking abilities, but Corel ditched it after one version of Wordperfect Office, instead opting for its own homegrown CorelCentral, which was basically a more conventional Outlook-style PIM.)

Corel chose to concentrate on niche quasi-vertical markets (law, education, etc.) where it was still able to compete. Wordperfect still enjoys network effects in the law market, even today, though this is weakening. Corel was able to offer competitive pricing in the education market into the early 2000s, and still is, though the recent advent of very low cost "education" versions of Office has weakened their pricing advantages somewhat.

Netmanage decided that niche quasi-vertical markets were not sufficient, and they got swept up in the late '90s Internet boom, thinking they could make a horizontal play for bigger markets by developing network software, and they chose to abandon Ecco.

The reality is that Corel's decision was probably the better one. Netmanage has not thrived, and indeed the market for horizontal consumer software applications that Netmanage was looking at has seriously withered, except for the largest players (Adobe, Macromedia, Autodesk). Why bring a new software product to market aimed at the broad horizontal consumer market when Microsoft will likely move to release a competing product and destroy you if you prove successful?

Ironically, had Netmanage kept Ecco alive, it would be an easier sell to businesses today than it would have been from 1998-2001. Microsoft's pricing scheme for Exchange (the software needed to run as a back end for Outlook) is now outrageously high for small and medium size businesses, the kind of organizations where Ecco historically did very well (e.g. law firms). The long-term costs for Office alone are rising. Where I work, we budget 10% annually for expected price increases to Office. As well, consumers and businesses are increasingly concerned about security vulnerabilities in Outlook. Alternatives like Linux are becoming more and more popular at the enterprise level. While Linux does have an Outlook clone (Novell Evolution), a Linux version of Ecco would provide a credible alternative to businesses, assuming it was email-enabled.

It is a pipe dream to imagine that anything will ever displace or beat Windows or Office, but one does not need to "beat" or "dominate" Microsoft. It is sufficient to be successful in a few niche markets, provided that the markets are large enough. The continuing survival of Wordperfect Office shows that such a business strategy is indeed possible, and it likely would have worked for Ecco as well.

By the way, I do not buy the idea that Ecco is too hard to use for average people. Ecco was historically very popular in law firms, a market that is not filled with overly technical users. Not to mention, Outlook was not terribly user-friendly in 1996 either. User interface enhancements such as context-sensitive help, query based Bayesian help (the "talking paperclip"), task panes, wizards, smart tags, etc. have only gradually been added to Office, starting with the talking paperclip in Office 97. Had Ecco been allowed to evolve, the user interface would have been similarly refined.

-- Chris Thompson


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