January 22, 2007

Harbinger Capital Partners vs. Openwave Systems

There’s a lovely proxy battle going on between Openwave Systems and investor group Harbinger Capital Partners. Openwave management , as the incumbents, are pursuing the boring route, with damage control, double-talk, legalese, and so on. Harbinger’s take on things is livelier.

I don’t know much about the details, but I’ll say this — anybody who wants to oust Dave Peterschmidt from a CEO job is probably on the right track. He’s the guy who ran Sybase into the ground, he didn’t have much of a resume before he got the opportunity to do that, and he hasn’t had very good results subsequently either.

If they can find a way to dump Peterschmidt while keeping Jerry Held, who’s the other management-slate board member up for reelection, so much the better. The Harbinger link above suggests that they’ve already had the same idea.

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January 20, 2007

Sean McGrath correctly predicts the future of enterprise SaaS

I was proud of coming up with the idea to blend SaaS and appliances, but it turns out Sean McGrath beat me to it.

January 3, 2007

Typical nonsense from SAP

Below, essentially in its entirety, is an e-mail I just received from SAP, today, January 3. (Emphasis mine.)

Thank you for attending SAPs 4th Annual Analyst Summit in Las Vegas. We hope you found the time to be valuable. To ensure that we continue meeting your informational needs, please take a few moments to complete our online survey by using the link below. We ask that you please complete the survey before December 20. We look forward to receiving your feedback.

What makes this typical piece of SAP over-organization particularly amusing is that I didn’t actually attend the event. I was planning to, but after considerable effort I think I finally made it clear to VP of Analyst Relations Don Bulmer that I was fed up with being lied to* by him and his colleagues. In connection with that, we came to a mutual agreement, as it were, that I wouldn’t go.

*and lied about

Obviously, administrative ineptitude and dishonesty are two very different matters, united only by the fact that they both are characteristics of SAP, particularly its analyst relations group. Having said that, I should hasten to add that there are plenty of people at SAP I still trust. If Peter Zencke or Lothar Schubert tells me something, I expect it to be true. And it’s not just Germans; I feel the same way about Dan Rosenberg or Andrew Cabanski-Dunning, to name just a couple non-German SAP guys.

But I have to say this — both SAP’s ethics and its internal business processes are sufficiently screwed up as to cast doubt on SAP’s qualifications to “run the world’s best-run businesses.”

August 2, 2006

SAP, the process company

The following is excerpted from an actual SAP email I received. Emphasis mine.

For more information on our T-Shirt process please visit: https: …
April 8, 2006

UI musings

In the past, I wrote vigorously and often about UI. I knocked heads long ago about the superiority of GUIs to character-based interfaces, and even long before that about the advantages of OLTP (which we called “real-time” then) over batch processing. In the latter 1990s, I put a lot of time and effort into search, better alerts-management, and context-sensitivity in general. And recently I’ve focused a lot of my research on analytics, often with a theme of “Yeah, yeah, the server-side stuff is cool — but let’s talk about how people actually interact with this stuff.”

Still, I feel something has been lacking, probably because there just are so many different UI subjects to talk about. So here are some quick-hit thoughts on UIs. The first ones are from my Computerworld column running next Monday, which is called (with apologies to Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King), Six Things I Think I Think About UIs.

1. “A good GUI interface” is the most important feature a product can have. In many cases, the GUI is the feature set, whether we’re talking about operational apps, BI, or IT administration tools. For example, when I looked into the security market a few years ago, it turned out that Checkpoint’s rise to dominate the firewall market in the late 1990s came about because it had a good GUI rules-administration interface, while otherwise equal or superior competitors didn’t.

2. Web UIs are now, finally, much superior to the client/server systems they replaced. That wasn’t true until recently. But now they’ve leapfrogged client/server a little bit in pure GUI functionality. (I somehow like this article on the technology, even though I’m not sure what I learned from it.) And they’re always been way ahead in application navigability.

3. BI look-and-feel is on the upswing. Business Objects is a good example of this. They brought their thin client products up to client/server GUI standards. They fiddled around in usability labs with screen real estate and so on to polish the dashboard UIs further. And then they went out and bought what is now Crystal Excelsius.

4. Portal technology is headed for a boom. I have a whole whitepaper in the works on that one.

5. Natural-language interfaces are advancing too slowly. Unfortunately, big vendors remain clueless about language-based UIs. Enterprise search is a fiasco. Most single-site web search is even worse; in almost every case, it’s inferior to just googling on search string + site name. As for natural language/voice command/control and navigation – we’re nowhere, Inquira and Sybase AnswersAnywhere notwithstanding. (I bet you can’t name a single user of either product off the top of your head. To tell the truth, I can’t either, except that I’m pretty sure Inquira powers the websites of a couple big-name cellular providers.)

6. Microsoft Office is a huge question mark. Office is facing a huge, if slow-moving, threat from open source. And the product has basically been stagnant for years, in that few users have cared much about any of the newer features.

Microsoft’s stated and obviously sincere strategy is to make Office an important window in the world of database applications. The Proclarity acquisition this week is surely part of that. So are the moves to make XML important in live documents, which dovetail nicely with the XML file formats of Office 2007.

EDIT: See also: You can start to imagine a world of Office as a business application platform,” Witts said.

7. In particular, Excel is a huge question mark. On the one hand, the BI industry is doing ever more to make Excel into a viable BI client. On the other hand, they’re trying to replace Excel as the data storage engine of choice — and in some cases even as the client — for budgeting/planning/etc. It does seem to me as if server-based planning is sweeping the enterprise world. So where does that leave Excel? Will it ultimately be anything more than a glorified calculator?

8. Home UIs are challenging work ones. Back when I consulted a lot to AOL in the late 1990s, I (correctly, it turns out) warned them that their client’s lack of functionality in areas such as email and browsing would get them into big trouble, because users’ expectations were being set higher at work. Now the reverse is at times true. Home bandwidth has caught up with work bandwidth, and webmail is in some ways better than Outlook. Meanwhile, a few websites out there are actually pretty usable, annoying clutter notwithstanding — and most of them are focused on consumer shopping, e.g. Amazon, Land’s End, et al.

9. Usability labs are crucial. Back in the 1990s, usability labs were new. Microsoft and Lotus and Borland had good ones, and Oracle hired Dan Rosenberg away from Borland to set up theirs. Other than that, there mainly were third-party consulting firms, or very primitive inhouse operations.

Well, I’m still not convinced that very many inhouse usability labs accomplish much. But I do know that whether it’s inhouse or third-party, you must use a lab if you’re serious about offering a competitive product.

10. Rules-based interfaces are too primitive. This isn’t really an interface issue so much as a functionality one — but as noted above, the two are inseparable. True declarative rules interfaces, which function with the same flexibility as 1980s-era expert system shells, are way too rare. Executing a set of rules in a set linear order is not the same thing at all.

April 6, 2006

Microsoft underscores its core paradigm

In a recent column called Three Views From the Top of the Software World (I generally don’t pick my titles, but that was as good as any), I opined that the big vendors had three fundamentally different paradigms from which they viewed enterprise software:

In the IBMOracle view, data — a.k.a. information — is king. IT’s job is to manage the data powerfully, reliably and (not always the top priority) cost-effectively. …

Microsoft’s vision, however, is quite different. It’s first and foremost about empowering people, at least to the extent that making them better corporate employees can be regarded as empowerment. …

While IBMOracle talks about information and Microsoft talks about people, SAP talks about business processes. …

Shortly after I wrote that, Microsoft came out with a sterling example of my claim. They told a story about composite apps. At SAP, composite apps are a business process story. At Oracle, they’re probably a business process story too. But at Microsoft? Read for yourself, in Microsoft’s own words:

The core vision behind what we are doing is Roles Based Productivity. To deliver on this vision, you have to start with “People” and really connect them up to their “work” (i.e. process). In the real world most people’s work is split across multiple applications and the “seams” show. Web Services is the foundational infrastructure that helps us get rid of the “seams”.

I don’t want to suggest I see something wrong with this. All three views are valid, and none of the vendors cited is too extreme (any more) about neglecting the other viewpoints. Still, I think this isn’t just semantics, but rather a fundamental difference in worldviews.

February 16, 2006

MySQL vs. the big guys

Marten Mickos, CEO of MySQL, is a quotable man this week. Oracle saw to that by acquiring Sleepycat, on the heels of its prior acquisition of Innobase. Basically, his message is rah-rah open source, he really truly can compete with Oracle on functionality, but of course as a practical matter Oracle probably is locking in its application customers to its DBMS, including customers from the Siebel and Peoplesoft acquisitions. That makes sense. It’s consistent with what I’ve been hearing from SAP. I now think that the quotes elsewhere suggesting he wasn’t serious about powering ERP software at all were misunderstandings. He just recognizes that the ERP software MySQL will power will largely be SAP’s.

As I’ve previously noted, the expectation is that MySQL will wind up getting share in SAP’s customer base. At least, the expectation is that their technology will be good enough to do so. The business reasons for SAP to favor this outcome are of course pretty obvious. Almost the only remaining question is whether SAP will back MySQL with great force, or whether it will divide its love between MySQL and its own inhouse DBMS product MaxDB.

February 16, 2006

Dave Duffield back in the saddle

Good article on Dave Duffield and his new startup. Dave is quoted emphatically saying that he did not come back to Peoplesoft to sell it, but rather to try to keep it independent.

That jibes with my view of him. He once told me that what he most valued about his success as a CEO was the corporate culture he’d created. (#2 on the list was getting rich and giving lots of money to charity, specifically to animal-related causes.) I thought at the time* and now think again that he was sincere when he said this. He’s also pretty much the only CEO who’s ever said something like that to me. There certainly have been others who cared about their employees (John Cullinane was particularly proud of how many people he’d help make into millionaires), but Dave is one of the very few I’ve known who could talk about a “corporate culture” of the kind/gentle sort and not sound insincere, ineffective, or just plain delusional.

*I must confess, however, that I never knew Dave as well as I knew a lot of other CEOs. Somehow, I never managed to even meet him until Peoplesoft was on its IPO tour. We made up for lost time later, up to a point, but he’s not one of the guys like Larry Ellison or Bill Gates, with whom I’ve had multiple multihour conversations.

February 13, 2006

Everybody gets paid — or would like to

The disclosures in this post have been updated in June, 2008.

I’m sometimes amazed at the breathless pseudo-naivete about pundits (analysts, bloggers, whatever) and compensation. The latest round was kicked off by a WSJ article about bloggers promoting FON. A couple of years ago, Computerworld editor Maryfran Johnson was viewed as a heroine for pointing out analyst firm conflicts of interest.

Personally, I’ve been an analyst for almost 30 years; I have a strong reputation for being independent and critical; and I get most of my revenue from vendors. So perhaps I’m in a good position to clarify some of the issues.

1. Good vendor relationships are an important factor in an analyst’s success. It’s not just revenue; you also need access to information. This is true whether you’re a stock analyst or an industry analyst.

Now, if you’re a good analyst, you can work around access problems. You can talk with customers, competitors, ex-employees, and other industry players. You may have relationships that transcend the company’s communication controls. (For example, it’s a firing offense at Oracle to have unsanctioned conversations with an analyst. And Oracle isn’t sanctioning a whole lot of conversations with me these days. But for a number of reasons, such as longstanding relationships with “untouchable” higher-ups, my information flow from inside the company is still pretty good.) Still, having access is better than not having access, and companies use that as a lever.

2. Analysts typically have more confidence in the companies that are their paying clients. I honestly call ’em as I see ’em, no matter who is or isn’t paying me. But some of my calls have to do with confidence. And who will I be more confident in? Company A, which has disclosed almost all their current activities and intermediate-term plans to me, and has given serious consideration to expensive advice they’ve paid me for (and hopefully done something with the advice)? Or Company B, with whom my relationship is largely being fed marketing pabulum, with only the occasional renegade getting off the reservation and telling me what’s really going on? Obviously, it’s often Company A.

Gartner Group is no different from me in that regard.

3. There’s a reinforcement cycle that confuses questions of bias. Companies give money and attention to analysts who are positively inclined towards them. They buy consulting services from analysts whose worldviews are compatible with theirs. The resulting relationship, if it goes well, reinforces everybody’s positive opinions of each other.

Meanwhile, companies give cold shoulders to analysts who don’t like them. And that just reinforces analysts’ opinions too.

4. Experience teaches that the companies that most manipulate or hide from analysts have the most to hide. If a company feels good about its strategy, and is eager to listen and learn how to make it even better, it’s often pretty engaged with analysts. If there are some product weaknesses it would prefer not to have discovered, it may be more inclined to concentrate its efforts on only the big firms it must talk to, and cold-shoulder the others. There are exceptions, of course, based on factors such as marketing budgets or the cluefulness of the analyst relations staff. But a good analyst’s gut feel about who is or isn’t being forthright is often a pretty good indicator of how a company’s technology is doing. Indeed, I have had some famous successes in this regard over the decades (e.g., the Cullinet and Sybase stories, which I really need to write up at some point over on the Software Memories blog). And it’s not just me. David Ferris of Ferris Research led the way when he and I had a success of that kind together with respect to Critical Path, shortly before the management team was discovered to be criminally dishonest.

5. Being on advisory boards almost always involves compensation or the expectation of compensation. Anybody who asserts otherwise is dishonest or naive. But then, the only folks I’ve ever seen assert otherwise are Fabian Pascal and (sort of) Chris Date.

So here is some of my disclosure.

February 2, 2006

SAP On-Demand — some key points

Here are some of my quick thoughts on SAP’s CRM On-Demand announcement:

1. One of the biggest barriers to SaaS (Software as a Service) growth in my opinion has been the question of data integration. Some of my data is at a service provider. Some is inhouse. How do I integrate it? How do I analyze it? SAP has provided a very good but still partial answer to those concerns by ensuring that its hosted and onsite versions of an app have the same APIs.

2. I say “partial” only because I’m having trouble envisioning many scenarios in which a customer would really want to have some of its data inhouse, some outsourced. It seems like the main benefit would almost always be as a transition strategy.

3. That said, sales automation can be one of the exceptions. The distributed computing problem for serving sales offices around the world may be much greater than that for the rest of one’s apps, so outsourcing that aspect of network management is not totally ridiculous.

4. Anyhow, this was obviously the way the software industry was headed. Indeed, it’s the way a lot of the industry did business until the first half of the 1980s. There were timeshared and onsite versions of the same products, in many cases. That strategy only died out completely when DBMS replaced file managers as the standard underpinnings to packaged apps, and that didn’t happen until the rise of relational DBMS in the second half of the 1980s.

5. I’m sure there will be issues with functionality, pricing, service responsiveness, and similar aspects of nimbleness. There’s no guarantee that SAP will establish and commit to a viable sales model for this service; it may always remain an afterthought. Even so, it could be enough to slow the penetration of Salesforce.com et al. into large enterprises.

6. To succeed in a big way, SAP has to establish a separate sales force, with a separate marketing budget. It also has to cross-commission between packaged product and SaaS sales. Those sound like slightly contradictory strategies, so there’s no assurance they’ll do both. Mark Benioff doesn’t have to panic quite yet.

7. The other non-trivial organizational problem SAP needs to solve is having one product development organization serve two sales force/marketing group masters. The closest thing they’ve done in the past to that is with NetWeaver, which is both a key technology for other SAP products and an important product in its own right. Their answer has been impressive fundamental engineering, but perhaps less “sizzle” on the surface of the product than it needs for maximum success. E.g., the BI products are significantly held back by their UIs, and serious attempts to fix that in my opinion just started last year — no offense intended to those hard-working people who might suspect I’m implicitly calling them “unserious” with that judgment.

Bottom line: Like most cases in which a huge and hugely successful company invades the core market of a rival, this effort will need to be judged several years and releases down the road. And the most important deciding factor will be whether or not there’s ongoing commitment to succeed in this new market, on a level comparable to the commitment with which the company pursues its much large core businesses. SAP has already shown such a commitment once this century, in NetWeaver. It’s too early to tell whether they’ll do so a second time, in SaaS.

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