Can we build enterprise software that doesn’t suck?

Box's Aaron Levie at GigaOM Net:Work 2011If the movement to re-engineer enterprise software is looking for an evangelist, Aaron Levie — co-founder and CEO of cloud-based collaboration service — would be a pretty good candidate. During a fast-paced talk at GigaOM’s Net:Work conference in San Francisco on Thursday, Levie repeatedly got laughs from the attendees as he made fun of how boring and difficult to use most enterprise software is. The CEO said that the key to making better software is to learn from consumer software and service companies, and make tools that are easy for users instead of just trying to lock them in to a specific platform.

Levie took aim at Microsoft (s MSFT) early in his presentation, introducing as being “like Sharepoint, if Sharepoint actually worked,” and then showing a photo of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer with a pirate-style eyepatch. The Box founder talked about how many companies are frustrated because more than $250 billion is spent on enterprise software annually, but the industry still suffers from bloated software that is expensive, slow to innovate and takes too long to deploy. And despite the size of the enterprise industry, no one really talks about how to make it better because everyone is too busy “talking about check-ins and virtual cows.”

Enterprises are going to create more than 1.8 trillion gigabytes of data this year alone, Levie said, but too much corporate software makes it hard to find that information, makes it hard to see who is using it and where, and makes it difficult or even impossible to share it outside the organization. The enterprise software industry is devoted to creating a complicated stack of programs and services that can be controlled by the company, he said, and IT departments spend all their time managing this infrastructure in the hope that it will create this “magical rainbow of enterprise value,” but the rainbow never appears.

Companies like Microsoft don’t want to dismantle this industry because they have so much invested in it, said Levie, but startups can re-imagine what the industry might look like if someone could rebuild it from the ground up — and the founder said it would look a lot more like the consumer software business, where satisfying users is the most important thing. “We need simple software, solutions that humans would choose to use even if they didn’t have to, and open systems where software works together instead of just locking customers into one solution,” he said.

With freemium and open-source and software-as-a-service models, companies can not only innovate and adapt rapidly, but users only pay if they like the product and find that it works for them, instead of buying a huge, complicated solution and then getting stuck with it — which Levie called the “Zappos model instead of the Oracle model.” And because they are more open, companies can choose several different pieces of software that work together, instead of going with a single-vendor solution.

The enterprise software industry may not see a lot of evangelists who wear orange sneakers and drop quotes from rappers like Notorious B.I.G. into their presentations, but’s CEO is clearly out to change that — and pretty much everything else the enterprise business seems to take for granted.

Photo by Pinar Ozger.