Originally published in the January 1995 issue of Advanced Systems.


Sybase tips the balance

Sybase ends the game of tools hardwired to a vendor's own database by buying Powersoft.

By Bill Rosenblatt

Sybase's recently announced takeover of Powersoft Corp. is one of those rare ideas that sneak up unimagined behind you and then seem blindingly obvious. This is a masterstroke from Sybase. The deal is the important merger in the short history of client/server computing.

Blue-ribbon deal
Sybase wins in several ways as a result of the Powersoft purchase. Most importantly, Sybase is getting the hands-down leader in the currently red-hot business of client/server application-development tools. Powersoft's Powerbuilder is one of several GUI-building tools that abstract away many of the details of client/server networking and relational databases. And at present, Powersoft owns 40 percent of this market.

Sybase had been attempting for years to become a player in the development-tools arena, through both in-house efforts and acquisition, but they have been utterly unsuccessful. Other major database vendors haven't done much better: None have been able to crack the high-growth client/server field. Client/server tools are considerably more complex than their mainframe-oriented predecessors; building such tools requires expertise database vendors just don't have.

Yet database vendors like Sybase badly need to compete in the client/server tools market. Many organizations have already deployed client/server database systems; now they need tools to help them build the applications that make their systems useful. This shift in the landscape particularly affects Sybase, whose narrower product line makes it more vulnerable to these changes. For them, success in the tools area is a key to survival.

But now, Sybase is the first database vendor to achieve that success. They will dominate the tools field until the next technological development -- presumably object-oriented database tools -- takes over.

Customers win, too
But Sybase also did something good for the industry in general. Some database vendors (such as Informix) have been making tentative noises about offering database-independent tools through standards like Microsoft's ODBC. But in general, database vendors have opted to protect their database sales and have shuffled their feet when it came to offering standards-based tools -- while Powersoft and its ilk have run away with the market with their nonproprietary tools. However, Sybase has now short-circuited the process by adopting the best-known database-independent tool as its own. From now on, no database vendor will dare offer proprietary tools -- not even Sybase. This is an important victory for open standards and customers.

Winners means losers
Powersoft also gets something less tangible: They become the first independent tool vendor to cross the border into the big leagues, by joining a company whose annual sales should exceed $1 billion in 1995. That should improve Powersoft's penetration into the world of large corporate customers, some of whom have shied away from Powersoft because of its youth and small size.

The loser in this deal, of course, is Oracle. Its market-leading position in the database industry just got weaker. Yet, although Sybase has won the client/server tools battle, other battlegrounds for the major database vendors will certainly emerge -- data-distribution tools and object-oriented database components spring to mind. So the war is far from over.

About the author
Contributing editor Bill Rosenblatt is director of Publishing Systems at the Times Mirror Co. He can be reached at bill.rosenblatt@advanced.com.

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Last updated: 1 January 1995.