Friday, July 31, 2009

Competition in high technology

One of the purposes of the last posts was to see how do high-tech firms actually compete. Industry analysis is usually presented in a nice compartmentalized way where the value chain is clearly identified and the five forces framework can be neatly applied. I think this post will show that for large firms, with offerings across different segments of an industry, or even crossing industry barriers, the analysis is a bit more complex.

I think this starts with the fact that the "IT industry" is in fact a multiple-headed beast, since so many other industries use it. So defining the industry in which these players compete is difficult in itself.

So basically some companies started in an industry vertical (Intersystems - healthcare) where they built a complete stack which then they exported to other verticals (finance for Intersystems), or to the "center", becoming integrated players (Cache is portraying itself as a general purpose "post-relational" database; my guess is that this moniker is an attempt to rebrand it as a mainstream competitor, kind of reframing the "hierarchical database with roots in 60's healthcare software" description; BTW, there is nothing wrong with this description, and I think it is a cool product with remarkable performance characteristics).

The challenge in this case is convincing a mainstream audience that a niche product originating in a vertical is indeed a viable proposition. Tough, especially since the ecosystem (e.g., reporting tools) is built around standards that for example Cache works around (e.g., the SQL "pointers").

Secondly, there are the pure vertical players (which I haven't really talked much about here such as Siemens and GE). They built their applications portfolios by acquisitions (so perhaps dbMotion is a potential acquisition target?) but they rely on the mainstream vendors from the "center" for the base technology (perhaps; e.g., Siemens uses MS SQL as the db engine for its HIS, but Epic uses Cache).

Then, there are the mainstream technology companies which are trying to move from the center (pure database platform) into verticals (Amalga). At this point they are obviously encroaching on the vertical vendors territory, be they pure vertical players or integrated players. How will companies compete on one segment while collaborating on others remains to be seen (vertical industry offering competition, collaboration at the platform level).

Fourth, there are niche players (dbMotion, SQLite, FairCom) which operate either in the vertical or in the center, but offering solutions appropriate for a specific vertical (e.g. FairCom having found a reasonalby comfortable place as the engine of choice for turnkey systems). As mentioned already, I would guess that at some point dbMotion's PE backers (if there are any) would be looking for an exit in the guise of a purchase by a vendor, either in the mainstream/center (more likely) or in the vertical, while SQLite or FairCom are likely, due to their more general (albeit niche) appeal, to survive on their own.

There are plenty of interesting companies I have not covered such as MCObject, db4o, Pervasive, OpenLINK, NeoTool, and perhaps even Progress. As time permits I might revisit this writeup to include them, and perhaps even do a nice boxes and arrows schema, as good strategy analysis always seems to demand!