Saturday, June 01, 2013

What we learn from history...

Is that we don't learn anything from history. -- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

In October of 2007, SAP announced a deal to acquire Business Objects for 6.8 billion dollars. Three months later, Business Objects was renamed "Business Objects, an SAP company" allowed to run independently. After two years, Business Objects was completely assimilated into SAP and the products were rebranded as SAP Business Objects. The transition was not smooth however.

Business Objects Acquisition History

In April of 2008, six months after the acquisition, Business Objects issued an apology to customers because of "poor service including delayed deliveries of the company's technology". [1] Then in July of 2008, SAP performed a migration of roughly 50,000 Business Objects customer services records into their own system. They were supposed to send the Business Objects customers their new login information, but approximately 20% of those customers never received that information. In some cases, it was because SAP didn't have an email address for the customer and had to use regular mail, and in at least one of those cases didn't have the correct contact information. [2][3] Four years later some of the Business Objects customers are still not happy about how the acquisition was handled. As one blogger recently concluded:

"Up to this point SAP has badly mismanaged the BO acquisition and customers are complaining mightily. From this vantage point, there seems to be very little benefit to customers of the Business Objects Acquisition. Customer service has gone done, the price has gone up, BO is not well-integrated to the BW, and the main use of BO now is to serve as a marketing support for SAP products. For instance, one recent use of BO has been to prop up their rebooted PLM solution. Overall, the BO acquisition has been a negative for customers."

Even more recently, customers are starting to question SAP with regard to the ambiguity on the roadmap for the Business Objects product line. For example, Simon Griffiths of the BBC noted that “Some clarity in the roadmap and the tool set that they are going to have would be nice. They keep acquiring all these add-ons, which just causes confusion about where the existing tool set is going.” Apparently Alan Bowling, chairman of the SAP User Group, discussed the concerns of Business Objects customers during his keynote at the annual conference.[5] A recent blob on the ASUG web site also remarked on discontent among Business Objects customers with how support is being handled.[6]

Sybase Acquisition History

In May of 2010, SAP made an offer to acquire Sybase for $5.8 billion. Three months later, in July of 2010: SAP completed the acquisition and Sybase was subsequently renamed to "Sybase, an SAP Company" and allowed to run independently. Just over two years later, Sybase was completely assimilated into SAP and the products were rebranded as SAP Sybase.

A couple of differences worth noting. First, in the case of the Business Objects acquisition, their founder and CEO Bernard Liautaud resigned as soon as the acquisition was complete. John Chen, CEO of Sybase at the time of the acquisition, did not resign until after Sybase was fully assimilated into SAP. Second, Sybase customers - at least to my knowledge - have yet to be transitioned into the SAP support system; whereas in the case of Business Objects they were transitioned in, or at least an attempt was made to transition them, within six months or so of the acquisition.

So, how is this acquisition being handled, and it is going better than the Business Objects acquisition? That answer is probably largely based on which former Sybase product(s) you use. Sybase had a lot of products, each at a different point in the process of being assimilated into SAP products. Like a multifaceted gem looks different depending on what facet you look at, the progress and smoothness of the acquisition probably looks different when you look at it from the perspective of different product customers.

I'm going to look at it from the perspective of a PowerBuilder customer. While PowerBuilder wasn't one of the key products that SAP was looking at when it decided to purchase Sybase, it did represent (at least at one point) a significant revenue stream for Sybase. Some time ago Sybase stopped reporting revenue by division, so it became hard to measure, but shortly after Sybase's acquisition of PowerSoft PowerBuilder accounted for about 30% of Sybase revenue [7], and in 2004 it was reported that sales of ASE and PowerBuilder together accounted for roughly 75% of Sybase revenues.[8]

While Sybase customers haven't been migrated into the SAP support system yet, Sybase did until recently have their own NNTP based discussion groups to provide community (end user to end user) support for their products. On March 28th of 2013, that system was shut down with the intent for the Sybase customers using the system to create SAP Community Network (SCN) accounts instead and have their discussions within the various Sybase product related development centers on that site. Because there was no particular standard for accounts on the NNTP system, there was no way to migrate the users to the new system automatically.

Unfortunately, in mid March SCN started having problems with hackers creating spurious accounts in the system and using them to generate spam messages to the system users. In response, the SCN administrators turned off new account registrations in the system and required manual moderation of all messages posted by fairly new users. The end result is that many Sybase customers could not create accounts in the new system, or if they had an account, had to wait an inordinate amount of time before any posts they made actually appeared in the system. New registration was not re-enabled until mid-April, and moderation continues although the criteria has changed. Yet, although the new system was not allowing new registrations, the old system was still taken down. Rather reminds me of one of my favorite Dilbert cartoons. Needless to say, that experience left a bad taste in the mouth of many Sybase product users.

More specifically related to PowerBuilder, there has also been a lot of concern expressed about a lack of detailed roadmap for the product. PowerBuilder customers are accustomed to seeing a roadmap that contains estimated dates for the next version of the product to move into beta and general release, usually given as a particular quarter. They are also used to knowing what specific enhancements are targeted for the next version. We understand that isn't the corporate policy for how SAP does roadmaps, but until we get used to that the uncertainty with regard to what enhancements are planned and when they will arrive will leave us wondering about SAP's commitment to the product.

In addition, the last major version of the product (12.5) was released in August of 2011. At the time of this article, that was 22 months ago. In the history of PowerBuilder, major releases are an average of approximately 18 months apart. With one exception (version 4 at 30 months) the longest period between major releases was versions 8, 9 and 10.5, all of which came out 20 months after the prior major release. Here we are though at 22 months after the last major release, and the next major release isn't even in beta yet, nor have we heard when it might be. Once again, the lack of measurable progress towards a new version of the product raises concerns in the minds of many PowerBuilder customers.

What has also not helped recently is some rather poor (or lack of) communication recently concerning the product. For example, in January of 2013, PowerBuilder's sister product InfoMaker somehow ended up on the Sybase list of Archived Products (products no longer sold). While information came out by word of mouth from SAP employees that is was a mistake and shouldn't have been included, it's still on the list as this article is being written some 5 months later. Then in April, SAP announced that it was discontinuing sales of PowerBuilder 12.x and 12.5.x (the last two major versions) and pulling EBFs for the last four major releases from their website. Although the notice did indicate there was a migration path to a new "EBF" version of the product, a number of not quite level headed bloggers took this to mean that the product was being put to pasture entirely.[9][10] The notice didn't go on to explain why the action was being taken. SAP had decided to remove a licensed third party control that was used in the WebForm target in those versions. As a result, it needed to stop selling versions of the product that contained the control and release the new "EBF" version that no longer included it for sale and evaluation downloads. Communicating that in the notice would perhaps have gone a long way towards assuring some customers that SAP wasn't killing off the product.

Is history repeating itself? From a PowerBuilder perspective, it appears so. It's nothing that SAP is doing intentionally. It's more a question of a rather long period of not doing anything, or at least not doing anything that is publically accessible. It's also a combination of some unfortunate events that could have been handled better and, in particular, communicated better. Time will only tell if it's not too late to change course or if we'll end up asking the same questions in a couple of years as the Business Object customers are asking now.

1. "Business Objects Apologizes to Customers", Information Management, April 23, 2008.
2. "SAP Needs More Than Tech Help to Fix This Week". IT Business Edge, July 18, 2008. Http://
3. "Business Objects/SAP Bungle Leaves Users in Lurch", The Channel, July 28, 2008.
4. "The Problems With SAP's Business Object Acquisition". SCM Focus. May 8, 2012.
5. "BBC Challenges SAP on Unclear Roadmap for BusinessObjects". ComputerWorld UK. November 20, 2012.
6. "SAP BusinessObjects Support: Is There a Problem Here?". ASUG News. May 31, 2012.
7. "PowerSoft Strengthens its Game". InfoWorld. September 15, 1997.
8. "Sybase: Off the Map?". Baseline. September 1, 2004.
9. "Sybase Ends PowerBuilder Downloads".
10. "PowerBuilder Has Been Killed".

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