You Are Your Own Vendor

By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld  |  Posted 2004-09-01 Print this article Print

As the ranks of suppliers dwindle, the truly disruptive technology will be your own.

The announcements couldn't be more starkly illustrative of how quickly competitive fortunes can change.

Hewlett-Packard on Aug. 12 said its earnings fell flat in its third quarter, at $846 million, compared to $858 million a year ago. The big miss: sales to corporate data centers.

That same day, Dell reported net income of $799 million, up from $621 million. Sales of servers to corporations increased 19%.

Dell's profits, in absolute amounts, are now just $47 million less than those of hp, even though Dell's quarterly revenues are $11.2 billion, compared to $18.9 billion for hp.

The elephant has now officially entered the room when it comes to the hardware, software and services you buy to build information systems. Is it possible that five years from now, you will have only two, maybe three, serious full-service suppliers in each arena?

Let's take a look. The big four server suppliers are IBM, HP, Sun Microsystems and Dell. You probably feel comfortable about IBM and Dell being healthy in 2009. How about HP and Sun?

In enterprise software, the full-suite suppliers are ... whom? You may rattle off SAP, Oracle and PeopleSoft. But don't you hesitate when you think about adding Siebel, Epicor, Lawson or even Microsoft to that list?

What about services? With Electronic Data Systems seeming to break a leg each time it takes a walk, can't you see the big names narrowing? Besides ibm Global Services, do you see the substantive choices boiling down to just one or two more competent players? Maybe hp. Maybe Accenture. Maybe Capgemini. But all of the above, and eds?

Now, before imaginations run wild, let's go to core memory. In the mid-1960s, IBM had roughly a 60% share of the market for hardware, software and services. The rest was split among the Seven Dwarfs: Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data, Honeywell, GE and RCA.

The U.S. Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against ibm for this alleged monopoly, at the end of 1969. By 1982, the case was dropped after a judgment that said the action was "without merit." Today, when the consolidation is done, buyers likely will still be left with at worst a duopoly and probably an oligopoly. You could argue that is progress.

It's also worth noting how quickly change comes. In 1998, Steve Ballmer of Microsoft was prattling on about noise. This would be Netscape, Oracle, IBM, Sun and ... everyone else.

Well, Netscape is neutered. Sun is struggling. Yet there are new software companies gaining ground.

Look at Veritas Software. In 1994, its annual revenue was $15.1 million. Now, it's almost $2 billion. Mercury Interactive went from $23.5 million in 1994 to $506.5 million last year. Is it a slouch?

By comparison, Oracle had just $55.4 million in sales after its first 10 years. In 1992, SAP had sales of just $59 million in North America.

What this says is: Don't believe everything you read about commoditization and consolidation. What will get commoditized or consolidated, as HP vice president of strategy Joe Hogan points out, will be equipment, code and services that become standard. The only items that corporations will, and should, pay a premium for are innovative products and services. Much of the rest will devolve into free (a.k.a. open source) products or pay-as-you-go computing.

The real conundrum is picking the right island of safety. If you spend $50 million on installing sap software, you're not likely to swap out of that anytime soon. Or easily if you do. In the meantime, as Gartner vice president Tom Topolinski reminds, "You're basically at the mercy of that vendor.'''

Just look at HP. It wants to be your installer of SAP software. But it couldn't put in SAP in a timely fashion, disrupting its own operations in this most recent, painful quarter.

You're still on your own. Figure out what you need. Spec it out. And demand it from your supplier, with airtight delivery schedules and service-level agreements.

Or do it yourself.

When it comes to what really counts in your business, your own innovation is the best protection. Make sure you're the disruptive technology. Before your choices get limited.

Tom was editor-in-chief of Interactive Week, from 1995 to 2000, leading a team that created the Internet industry's first newspaper and won numerous awards for the publication. He also has been an award-winning technology journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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