IBM Software M&A: The Not-So-Hidden Agenda

The full impact of IBM's recent acquisitions won't be felt for sometime, but there's a quick analysis worth making about Big Blue's appetite for acquiriing enterprise software companies. IBM is an interesting fourth force at the top of the enterprise software market, being the only one of the big Four (SAP, Oracle and Microsoft being the others) that has eschewed a packaged software strategy, sort of.

The full impact of IBM's recent acquisitions won't be felt for sometime, but there's a quick analysis worth making about Big Blue's appetite for acquiriing enterprise software companies. IBM is an interesting fourth force at the top of the enterprise software market, being the only one of the big Four (SAP, Oracle and Microsoft being the others) that has eschewed a packaged software strategy, sort of. In the IBM playbook, packaged software like SAP's MySAP, Oracle's Ebusiness Suite, or Microsoft Dynamics is something IBM Global Services implements as part of its consulting practice, not something IBM Software builds and sells directly. That's because IBM Software's mandate is to buy or build a toolset that it can hand off to Global Services in order to fuel that division's much higher profit margins. And, at least for now, that toolset does not include the classic ERP, CRM, SCM, and HR products of its Big Four rivals. Let them own it and upgrade it, IBM's strategy says, and we'll sit on the sidelines and get the big money they leave on the table for the consultants and implementers.

However, despite its aversion to packaged software a la SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft, IBM is clearly buying packaged products: MRO, Filenet, Trigo, and many others are packaged products too, albeit ones that require a lot of consulting dollars to implement. (So do the products from SAP, Oracle and Microsoft, though these companies are under tremendous pressure to lower the ratio of licence to consulting costs, and their products are more and more designed to require less implementation time and expense, and therefore provide less of a margin for IBM GS).

Which leads us to the essence of the IBM acquisition strategy: buy products that produce lots of consulting dollars for Global Services without directly competing with SAP and Oracle (and to a lesser extent, Microsoft.) Filenet is a great example. Content management is a perfect IBM GS category: fixing content management problems for companies also requires fixing the processes that use (or try to use) enterprise-wide content. Many of these processes are poorly automated, if at all, and are outside the purview of traditional enterprise applications such as those sold by the rest of the Big Four. That means big consulting dollars for IBM, little direct competition with SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft, and yet another good reason for IBM reps to walk in the CEO's office and say "I've got a fix for whatever ails you."

It's a great strategy for staying very much in the game without taking on the enterprise software market leaders directly. No doubt these recent acquisitions, and virtually every other packaged software acquisition by IBM, has the effect of taking some money from the rest of Big Four -- but the impact is less direct and in-your-face, and more "complementary" to IBM's partnerships with SAP, Oracle, and Microsoft. Complementary yes, but very much on IBM's terms.

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