Why do so few industry specific software vendors provide an ‘evergreen’ platform?

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What do I mean by ‘evergreen’?  I define an ‘evergreen’ platform to be one where my data is regularly moved forward to the next version of application without me or my business having to put in any material money or time to take each upgrade.  

If you own an Apple device or an Android device, you know exactly what this looks like.  It’s opening the App store and tapping on ‘Updates’ to download all the updates that have been released for your Apps since you last updated them.  Some people even configure their devices to auto-update so that they don’t even need to take the time to do the tapping!  

I think of engineering platforms to be evergreen as designing, building and operating them so that there’s just no barrier to continuously moving forward.  The benefits to customers of evergreen are:

1) Evergreen platforms never become legacy applications approaching end-of-life;

2) The cost of upgrades is minimised and built into the overall commercial model as a shared cost rather than being directly borne by each individual customer of the platform;

3) New features and innovation are therefore immediately available to customers, as opposed to the frustration associated with desirable new features being available in a new release but there’s a costly upgrade project required to get them; and

4) Cyber security and other important maintenance activities are continuously delivered keeping the service working and the customers’ data safe.

By applying this definition, we find that in addition to the personal device focused platforms of Microsoft, Apple and Google, there are many other evergreen platforms out in the market.  These include all the ‘born in the cloud’ SaaS platforms such as ServiceNow, Xero, Workday and Salesforce.  These organisations invested in engineering their platforms to be cloud based and evergreen so that they could on-board tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of customers all operating on a common code base.  It makes a lot of economic sense for both the platform provider and their customers to operate this way.

All of this leads me to question…..   “Why are so few industry specific software vendors spending the R&D to reengineer their platforms to be evergreen?”  

Over recent years I’ve consistently asked for evergreen platforms in industries such as health care for patient administration systems, in retail banking for core account ledger systems, in wealth management for superannuation funds management, in insurance for policy administration systems, yet have been continually disappointed to find few if any truly evergreen options available.   

Some vendors provide what they call a ‘cloud’ option, or a ‘SaaS’ option, and they might even claim that it’s evergreen, but when I look closely at these offerings, I discover they aren’t evergreen because they don’t include low cost continuous upgrades built into the price.  Typically, they can’t offer true evergreen because they haven’t engineered their software to be multi-tenant, sufficiently configurable or sufficiently agile to move at the pace of their entire client base on a common code base.  The fall-back position is therefore to offer individual instances for each client running on a public or private cloud infrastructure model.  Unfortunately, this model doesn’t solve the problem of high upgrade costs being a barrier to continuously moving forward and therefore I don’t consider these models to be evergreen.   

When I press software vendors as to why they haven’t prioritised this evergreen reengineering of their offerings, the most common answer I get is “My customers aren’t asking for it”.  I find this an odd response from an industry so packed with well-funded disruptors.  I’m pretty sure Salesforce didn’t go for a SaaS based evergreen model because clients were asking for it, in fact they created a whole new market being businesses that couldn’t afford to buy a CRM under the traditional on-premise model.  Salesforce disrupted the CRM market and forced others to follow or die.

My advice to established industry-based software vendors is: invest in the evergreen reengineering of your software products.  This may take a bit of self-disruption but the only alternative is to be disrupted.  Look to Microsoft for inspiration as a company who was challenged by an evergreen Apple model packed with continuous innovation and who introduced an evergreen model of their own.

My advice to customers of industry specific software vendors is: ask for evergreen.  One approach is to let your existing provider(s) know that you will no longer waste money doing costly turn the egg timer over updates to key business applications.  The next upgrade you do will be the last major upgrade because it will be to an evergreen platform either with your existing vendor or with someone who’s disrupting them.

If you need help with technology strategy, governance or performance, feel free to reach out to me on david.boyle@cap2its.com.


About the author: David Boyle’s IT career over 30 years spans both the buy side and sell side of technology services.  He’s worked with Accenture, EY, Commonwealth Bank of Australia and until recently was the Group CIO at NAB.  David is now the Managing Director of CAP2ITS, a technology advisory firm focusing on technology strategy, performance and risk