Whatever happened to the likely lads?

Just as ‘Whatever happened to the likely lads’? was the colour sequel to the original 1960s BBC sitcom – so it seems some technology companies can successfully reinvent themselves and ride the economic boom and bust cycles for the long term.

Just as ‘Whatever happened to the likely lads’? was the colour sequel to the original 1960s BBC sitcom – so it seems some technology companies can successfully reinvent themselves and ride the economic boom and bust cycles for the long term.

Prime candidate for surviving what are often popularly described as ‘disruptive technology waves’ is of course Intel. Andy Grove had a term for this; he referred to ‘strategic inflexion points’ in technological development in his book Only the Paranoid Survive. (NB: I’ve read it, it really is quite a good book).

As we all know by now, Grove re-positioned the company’s manufacturing focus by orchestrating the firm's pivotal shift from memory chips to microprocessors during the 1980s. He understood that large shifts in market dynamics can happen and that if you can pre-empt them, you can also be instrumental in their development to benefit your own commercial advantage.

So anyway, here’s the point of my blog. Every year (since 2004) I get invited to attend Sybase’s developer symposium, the nautically titled TechWave. On more than one occasion I’ve been chatting to my developer journo peers in London just before heading stateside and heard the comment, “Oh really – whatever happened to Sybase?”

These comments are of course usually levied as a casual jibe with a touch of friendly rivalry designed to make me stop and think – are they jealous I got that trip or do they really think I’m flying 11 hours for nothing? After all, you get the same stick for going to Microsoft PDC and I’m sorry, but that is a good event. But aside from that, taking it as a given that Sybase is as guilty as the next vendor of marketing hype – it’s probably quite unfair and may in fact mask a deeper truth.

Back in the nineties, the company looked to be going the same way as Informix (in terms of database companies limping along) but managed to keep its head above water largely by repositioning its product portfolio and making a series of good acquisitions. I was at an Embarcadero dinner some time back and the UK chief kept harping on about ‘robustness’ until I challenged him on the point and used Sybase’s acquisition of Afaria as an example of database stability (and therefore ‘robustness’ I suppose) – and he didn’t have an answer for me.

The financial reports show that Sybase is a billion dollar entity. So why are they so quiet? They sell a huge amount to the defence sector, so maybe they have to be.

They also sell big chunks of kit to the financial markets – and I saw a story this week about the launch of a new “offering” called RAP – The Trading Edition. (Next wait for RAP – The Movie… and RAP – The Theme-Park Ride presumably!) This is a market analytics platform that, “Lets capital markets firms make better trading, risk and portfolio decisions with less risk through timelier, more comprehensive market insight,” – it says here.

Enough of that, you can read up on it on the web if you’re interested – I thought the wider issue of corporate reinvention in the IT industry was of more interest.

With the government discussing plans to build a huge database to log every e-mail, text message and phone call we make – database development for defence could just be about to witness a massive upswing, you might even call it a strategic inflexion point if you really wanted to.