SAP's planned acquisition of Sybase reads like a World War I battle plan: replete with confident, assured references to "synergy" and objectives and market opportunities. But now, as then, the plan may bear little resemblance to what's happening on the ground.
SAP is forking over nearly $6 billion to buy a niche database player. So what are Sybase's real assets for SAP, which is mainly an enterprise application vendor? There are two broad areas: middleware, or software that helps applications share data and work together; and a mobility "platform" stitched together from a string of Sybase's own acquisitions over the past decade.
Despite the attempt at re-invention, nearly three-quarters of Sybase's software revenues still come from its various database and business analytics products, according to Om Malik, tech journalist and founder of GigaOm.com.
"In comparison, mobile related products such as SUP, SQL Anywhere and Afaria account for about 27 percent of software licenses," he writes. "Some of my sources that know the company well are of the opinion that instead of mobile, the real reason Sybase is growing is because of its analytics-focused products and the mobile messaging business."
SAP is pretty clearly interested in just the parts of the Sybase portfolio that bear on these trends. Sybase has three product groups: infrastructure, with the database and business analytic engines; enterprise mobility based on the iAnywhere "platform," which is a group of applications including the SQL Anywhere mobile database, the Afaria products for managing mobile devices and iAnywhere Mobile Office; and mobile services, based on Sybase365, which offers interoperable SMS, MMS, and other messaging capabilities for mobile operators, mobile CRM, marketing, content delivery and other services for enterprises, a panoply of mobile commerce services (banking, payments and remittances).
Sybase's goal has been to leverage the potential synergy between these products, a bet that SAP is picking up. In March, for example, Sybase launched a new hosted service for mobile operators, using its Sybase IQ 15.1 analytics server to let the operators do complex analysis of their SMS traffic.
"With Sybase, we see the opportunity to dramatically accelerate our presence in mobility," SAP CTO Vishal Sikka said during a conference call to discuss the deal. "We can untether and mobilise every single deployment we have of core SAP products, as well as the SAP and Business Objects analytical products."
That's the strategy. And plenty of analysts think it's a good one.
"SAP rightly understands that within the next two to three years, there will be more mobile platforms used in business than desktops," according to an e-mailed assessment by Jack Gold, principal of technology analysis firm J. Gold & Associates.
"Especially in emerging markets where many businesses are skipping the traditional PC device in favour of the many flavours of smartphones and other wireless devices (eg, the emerging trend in tablets/slates). Getting to this "next billion users" is critical to SAP's long-term success."
"Sybase provides not only mobile middleware, but relationships with Amazon for cloud computing," writes Yankee Group analyst Sheryl Kingstone in a blog. "Yankee Group research predicted the fusion of cloud computing, application mobility and social media to transform the enterprise mobility space. This deal now gives SAP 2 out of 3 in a single purchase."
But SAP's efforts in both mobility and middleware have been painful for both the company and its customers. Forrester Research recently recommended that SAP customers look elsewhere for enterprise middleware. "For the last several years, SAP has been falling behind in creating a comprehensive platform and in maintaining a strong level of investment," wrote John Rymer, Forrester vice president and principal analyst.
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