Every time a new IT era opens up, it is with some nostalgia that I watch the new wave of Sybases crystalize. What’s a “Sybase?” The Sybases of IT are those “once upon a time” great companies with excellent technology, great industry vision and leadership that, at some point, for various reasons, aren’t able to adapt to a paradigm shift that occurs in their field. What typically remains of those Sybases is a great brand, great margins, highly predictable recurring revenue, anemic growth, no innovation and, for me at least, some nostalgia for the passion and innovation that was once emitted by their brand.
When a paradigm shift happens in well-defined markets, vendors whose revenues mostly come from that market are at high risk of Sybasification if they can’t adapt. However, larger vendors, diversified in multiple markets, while most of the time not acting as leaders in any of the markets they are active in, were always able to hop on one foot and had more time to adapt. A company that would have only been active in middleware wouldn’t have been able to fail as much as Oracle and Sun did. Same for Microsoft with databases or search. The examples are legions.
The current cloud paradigm shift is unique in that it is much wider than any industry-specific shift that ever happened. Sure, the move to relational databases, Unix variants, the Internet, virtualization, etc. have all been massively impacting shifts, but the cloud comes with a breadth we’ve probably never seen before: all layers of IT are impacted, from storage to networking, from operating systems to collaboration, from data centers to client devices. The cloud is simply redefining how IT happens, period.
So what’s unique today is that because of the breadth of the cloud, the current Sybasification of the market will not only apply to domain-specific vendors it also puts at risk the super-nova IT vendors. Pick your favourite brand, Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, HP, SAP, VMware: those vendors are all at risk of Sybasification .
What prompted me to write this article is obviously the current change that’s taking place at the reins of MSFT, this incredible giant with footing in operating systems, collaboration, gaming, mobile phones, keyboard and mouse technology, middleware, management, etc. But obviously, all of that is about to change. And yes, even for keyboards and the mouse. Can they succeed? Sure, anybody can win the lottery, but my personal vote is that it simply won’t happen. In a company that’s so culturally focused on selling “the full thing” (just because people had to buy the core) and that’s so focused on its legacy sales organization, I don’t see how they can change their culture and sales incentives in a way that’s going to be bold enough yet, at the same time, won’t put their P&L in danger. We will see.
As a long time MSFT fan, I’ll certainly be very nostalgic about MSFT’s Sybasification (don’t get too excited, it will take 5-10 years) but in the grand scheme, this Darwin-like clean-up will be highly beneficial to IT market’s real players: the customers.
“Nobody gets fired for buying Microsoft?” Possibly, but you might want to resist signing a five-year agreement with them.
Sacha Labourey is the former CTO of JBoss, Inc. He was also co-general manager of middleware after the acquisition of JBoss by Red Hat. He ultimately left Red Hat in April 2009 and founded CloudBees in April 2010. Follow Sacha on Twitter.