She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not

Software partnerships tend to be rather fickle propositions. Go to any tech show, and chances are, you’ll see vendor pronouncements covering everything from third-party product interface support to more ambitious strategies involving joint sales, marketing tech support, or product development.

Are these announcements believable? Do they matter? You bet. If you buy products from vendors whose relationship eventually sours, you may find yourself saddled with orphaned or poorly supported products or interfaces.

There are many kinds of alliances, including relationships of equals and niche vendor ecosystems clustering around hubs like Microsoft or IBM. There are vendors that walk the talk, and there are vendors that simply pay lip service.

For instance, when Rational announced a partnership with IBM some years back, conventional wisdom termed the deal a counterbalance to its existing Microsoft relationship. In fact, it marked the beginning of a courtship that culminated with IBM’s acquisition and a more arms-length relationship with Microsoft. At the other extreme, BEA’s pathetic alliance track record has generated a degree of uncertainty for WebLogic customers using Sun and HP platforms, not to mention smaller third party local or regional systems integrators.

(NOTE: For an excellent analysis of BEA’s channel and alliance foibles, go here. Will open in a new window)

We were reminded of the issue while attending a recent forum sponsored by the NY Software Industry Association featuring alliance directors from IBM, Computer Associates, and iWay. For IBM, partnering became high priority after its “near-death” experiences of the early 90s; for iWay, it was the realization that their technology (primarily adapters to various systems) was better suited for the OEM market; and for CA, it was the understanding that its internal 4000-person field staff was not large enough to service the entire installed base.

How can customers judge whether vendors are sincere? Look at vendor culture and history. Does the vendor have a not-invented here attitude, or does it tend to defer to others when outside its niche? Who’s driving the alliance: headquarters or the field? Does it make sense given the vendor’s organization? Vendors whose organizations are highly decentralized may have difficulty getting field buy-in for relationships announced from above, and vice versa. If a relationship is a local marriage of convenience, is it driven by the local manager’s close tie to a third party, an internal rivalry to avoid using another part of the vendor’s organization, or because of the clout of a powerful customer? And will such partnerships survive if one or more of the principals leaves or is transferred?

Partnerships have real ramifications on buying decisions. Ideally, vendor partnerships add flexibility and options for customers. But before believing the press release or your local account manager’s words, apply a bit of organizational psychology and market savvy to hedge your risks.

Two to Tango?

On the eve of the Oracle/PeopleSoft DOJ trial, Microsoft’s revelation that it was considering buying SAP amounted to quite a bombshell. At first blush, the notion that Microsoft would consider entering the “Enterprise” part of the ERP market should bolster Oracle’s contention that competition would remain alive and well even if it swallowed PeopleSoft. As we’ve stated previously, we agree with Oracle, but not because of Microsoft’s revelation.

Look at the state of the ERP marketplace: If you’re a Global 2000 firm, chances are, if you ever needed an ERP system, you probably bought one prior to Year 2000. And once you’ve signed the dotted line, you’re a captive audience. Maybe you can explore third party solutions for front office, business intelligence, portal, enterprise integration, or other solutions, but when it comes to back office processing, you’re not about to chuck the investment you’ve got.

That leaves small-midsize businesses (SMBs) as the remaining frontier for ERP. From that standpoint, Microsoft’s decision not to buy SAP was on the money, because other than market size, it would have not provided any advantage towards conquering the virgin territory that still exists in the ERP space. Yes, Microsoft will continue beefing up Great Plains and Navision in coming years, but come on, they’re not about to win any 50,000-seat deals because (1) it would take forever for Microsoft’s offerings to approach SAP, Oracle, or PeopleSoft in functionality, and (2) there are simply no Global 2000 companies ripe for the taking outside of PeopleSoft customers who might feel jilted in the event of an Oracle takeover (they’d probably go to SAP anyway).

So we’ll return to our main point. The ERP market is mature and could stand consolidation. It would be lousy for PeopleSoft customers if Oracle succeeds, but based on current anti-trust law, PeopleSoft has little leg to stand on because there would be at least two viable companies left standing for the Global 2000 space — SAP and Oracle. Consequently, Microsoft’s revelation yesterday is worth little more than shock value.