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SAP buys Sybase - but why?

$5.8bn question

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Comment German database maker SAP went on a shopping spree last week to buy in rather than build up a mobile platform maker to bolt onto its already bloated business. But why did it drop close to $6bn on Sybase?

It was arguably the biggest pure tech news story of the past week, in which German database giant SAP shook money out of its own piggy bank and secured a $2.75bn loan from Deutsche Bank and Barclays Capital to pay for the purchase.

Some considered the buyout to represent SAP’s efforts to step on Oracle’s toes, especially while the Larry Ellison-run firm is busy digesting Sun Microsystems and, at the same time, continuing to try and cleanse the nasty aftertaste in the mouths of its current and former employees.

The most interesting element of SAP’s planned takeover is - it would like you to believe - that Sybase will get its hands on the company’s in-memory processing tech, which will give the mobile platform maker a leg up in analytics.

SAP, for its part, said it would be able to ramp up its mobile offerings. This is all well and good in a database market that’s looking increasingly contracted. The acquisition, on the surface at least, makes the German company look like it’s still a relevant or even significant player in the database space.

But wind the clock back 12 years to Ellison’s precocious comment on who the database rivals were back in 1998: "I have only IBM and Microsoft to compete with, since Sybase and Informix are having a hard time sustaining their business."

In other words, Mr Oracle thinks Sybase jumped the shark a long, long time ago, when the iPhone was still a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye. So what’s changed? Well, we now have the iPhone.

Meanwhile Sybase is still out there doing its thing, no matter how small a global market share it commands - it was hovering somewhere around the five per cent mark at the last count. And perhaps the rationale follows over at the SAP camp that clamping a mobile platform to its clunking middleware bulk will help somehow propel it into the big boys' league by bringing its database onto more mobile handsets.

That’s the message SAP is hoping to bang home with this planned buyout, anyway.

Returning to Ellison’s 12-year-old comment about the database biz, he singled out Informix alongside Sybase as companies Oracle could probably afford to ignore.

By 2005 Informix was folded into the Big Blue family and the logic follows that had Microsoft made a play for Sybase around the mid-noughties then perhaps it would still, in its own small way, be able to look like a serious contender up against Oracle.

But SAP betting on a fairly anonymous firm that in Ellison's eyes was an also-ran way back in 1998, could yet prove to be an irrelevant but extremely costly acquisition. ®

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