PeopleSoft: the real ale analogy
Full-bodied flavour, consumer choice
Opinion Thirty years ago, Britain's pubs were dominated by a handful of major breweries. For some reason that escapes me, these companies seemed to believe that what British drinkers wanted to drink was bland beer that was fizzy and tasteless. From the brewer's perspective this had the distinct advantage that you could not tell one company's product from another's. This had the corollary that the biggest brewers would continue to dominate the market because there was, effectively, no choice.
The most infamous of these drinks (they hardly merit the name beer) was known as Watney's Red Barrel, which was lampooned in both song and print, most notably by Monty Python's Flying Circus.
While it took a number of years, eventually the British beer drinking public - encouraged by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) - woke up to the fact that this brewery-driven market was depriving it of real beer with real flavour, that actually tasted of the malt and hops it was made from, as opposed to the factory-produced pap it was being offered.
To cut a long story short, once awakened by CAMRA the great British drinker made its opinions known and, in the fullness of time, the Red Barrel's of this world disappeared from view and we have seen the wide availability for real ales. Today, in part thanks to new government regulations, even the large breweries produce pretty decent bitter, and access to real ales is as widespread as it has ever been.
What has this got to do with computing? Well, consider the statements from Oracle and others that we would better off with a two-vendor market (SAP and Oracle) as opposed to allowing PeopleSoft to retain its independence - it's a bit like the brewers who used to think they knew better about what we wanted to drink - and got proved totally wrong.
However, it's not really a question of whether there are two or three vendors at the top of the tree: the issue is more about what is going on in the undergrowth. To ensure a healthy industry, whether its ERP software or databases, we need to have plenty of smaller and mid-tier players. While it would be a mistake to say that the major players never produce anything innovative (look at Oracle and 10g for example), it is typically the smaller companies that investigate and deploy new technologies first, they adopt new standards more aggressively, and exploit niches in the marketplace.
So, it's the real ale computing companies that are often most interesting for an analyst like me, and especially start-ups, who have had an original idea and want to develop it. If these technologies are sufficiently successful they will eventually be taken up by other vendors and their ideas will benefit the market at large.
There is one final point to make: yes, you can get a decent pint more or less wherever you go. But, overall, sales of bitter have gone down. Why? Because lager has taken a bigger share of the market. Taking our real ale computing model a stage further this means that Oracle, Microsoft and the other 800lb gorillas don't have to worry too much: there will always be people who like bland, fizzy drinks and do not appreciate a more full-bodied flavour.
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