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Feature

Does Software Consolidation Stifle Innovation?

The software industry is quickly settling into a gang of four: IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP. Where will the next billion-dollar competitor come from?
LET'S MAKE A DEAL

Why all the big deals? Theories typically center on industry maturity, vendors in search of new growth and market opportunities, or a combination of the two. Some view consolidation as the natural progression of an aging industry, invariably dredging up a comparison to the global auto industry. But consider that both software suppliers and buyers have more cash to spend than in years past. IT budgets have increased steadily since bottoming out five or six years ago, and it's universally forecast that spending on software will continue to rise this year, as long as something unexpected doesn't derail the economy. Meanwhile, software companies, which were under Wall Street pressure to focus on profitability several years ago, have shifted back to revenue-growth strategies to capture more of those rising IT budgets. So they're buying companies with technologies that either complement their own or drive their businesses into new areas.

Gary Scholten, CIO at $9 billion-a-year Principal Financial Group, says he has highlighted software industry consolidation as a "risk issue and an opportunity" with the company's board. Scholten learned the hard way. A while back, one of the financial services company's software providers was acquired by an IT infrastructure vendor that wanted to take the software in a completely different direction, one that didn't mesh with Principal Financial's IT infrastructure. So Principal had to dump the software and transition to something else.

On the other hand, acquisition by a larger company can put a struggling software supplier on more solid financial footing and allow it to scale its architecture, Scholten says. And consolidation can actually increase a customer's influence with an alpha vendor. For example, Principal Financial's influence with Oracle has increased as Oracle has acquired companies Principal does business with. "For every negotiation we have with them, that plays a part," Scholten says. Premier customer status can mean better volume licensing deals, better access to vendor executives, and inclusion on customer advisory boards to influence the vendor's technology road map and strategic direction.

THE FEWER, THE BETTER

Despite rising budgets, the dictate to run a lean IT organization hasn't changed. Working with fewer vendors means spending less money managing relationships. As a major Siebel account and a large Oracle customer, Ingersoll Rand's Libenson says he had significant negotiations going on with both companies. Now he deals with only one. "The fewer companies I have to deal with, the easier my job is," Libenson says. And he applauds Oracle's acquisition of Oblix, which Ingersoll Rand was using for identity management. "It really legitimized the technology and helped tremendously from an integration perspective," he says.

Still, when it comes to software moving from one owner to another, integration is a major concern, along with upgrades and licensing. Oracle co-president Charles Phillips said at Oracle OpenWorld in October that there will be "no forced march" migrations from one application platform to another, even as the vendor continues its own march toward the integrated applications framework known as Fusion, the first part of which is due next year. Oracle will provide upgrades soon for its Oracle E-Business suite and the JD Edwards, PeopleSoft, and Siebel product lines. The JD Edwards upgrade will be the first in 10 years, the company says. In December, Oracle announced an umbrella software licensing scheme for all its applications, in an effort to eliminate the complexity of sifting through the various schemes of PeopleSoft, Siebel, and others.

Ingersoll Rand's Libenson has had some experience integrating Oracle's and Siebel's apps, and he'd like to see Oracle make faster progress. "But being realistic, integrating two monolithic platforms is a huge amount of work," he says.

Oracle's acquisition strategy is losing it some deals. Sport Chalet, a $350 million-a-year retailer, chose SAP's retail offering over Oracle's because of the lack of integration between Oracle financial apps and the retail apps of Retek (acquired by Oracle in 2005), says Sport Chalet CFO Howard Kaminsky.

Musical instrument maker Yamaha uses Oracle for ERP, but it bypassed the company's CRM software for Salesforce's on-demand product, using Tibco Software to connect its Salesforce apps with its ERP system. The main reason it chose Salesforce was because software as a service offered faster implementation and reduced complexity, says David Bergstrom, Yamaha's corporate planning manager. He's having a hard time understanding how Oracle's acquisition strategy will benefit his company. "It seems like it's just gotten more complicated for them," he says, considering the "menu of things" Oracle offers up. "It's not as simple, clean, and clear as with a Salesforce solution."

Gartner analyst Alexa Bona says she has heard a fair amount of grumbling from Oracle customers about the maintenance Oracle provides after it acquires a software vendor. As support and other personnel from those acquired companies get laid off or move on, "some customers feel some of the skills sets are missing, yet support fees are higher," Bona says.

Not so, argues Oracle senior VP Sonny Singh. Oracle surveys its customers periodically on their experiences with support and communications, and their understanding of Oracle's vision, Singh says. In the last year, Oracle's customer satisfaction rate, as measured by its Global Customers Program surveys, is up 16%, though he won't disclose the base number for that increase other than to say it was high.