ASK Computer Systems
Historical notes on application software company ASK Computer Systems, vendor of the MANMAN MRP system. Related subjects include:
The commercial computing, software and services industries have existed for half a century or so each. It might be interesting to review how their pricing and delivery models have evolved over time.
1960s and 1970s
Modern IT is commonly dated from the introduction of the IBM 360 mainframe in 1964-5. But even before then, there was a growing industry in what we’d now call outsourced services, specifically in payroll processing; major players included Automatic Data Processing (ADP), the company that gave us Senator Frank Lautenberg, and a variety of banks. This was (and to this day remains) a comprehensive service, priced by unit of work (e.g., number of payroll checks cut).
IBM mainframes, which quickly came to dominate the market, were in the 1960s and 70s commonly rented. IBM software that ran on them was hence typically priced on a rental/subscription basis as well. The independent packaged software companies, however, often preferred to get paid up front,* and hence sold perpetual licenses to their software. Annual maintenance fees for the licensed software started in the range of 10% of the perpetual license or even less, but migrated up to today’s 20-22% range.
|Categories: Analytics, Application software, ASK Computer Systems, Computer Associates, Computer services, Cullinet, EDS, IBM, MSA, Oracle||6 Comments|
Recently I expressed doubts about Actian’s DBMS-conglomerate growth strategy. For context, perhaps I should review other DBMS vendors’ acquisition strategies in the past. Some — quite a few — worked out well; others — including many too minor to list — did not.
In the pre-relational days, it was common practice to buy products that hadn’t succeeded yet, and grow with them. Often these were programs written at enterprises, rather than third-party packages. Most of Cullinet’s product line, including its flagship DBMS IDMS, was came into the company that way. ADR, if memory serves, acquired the tiny vendor who created DATACOM/DB.
Then things slowed down. A Canadian insurance company oddly bought Computer Corporation of America, to utter non-success. (At least I got an investment banking finder’s fee on the deal.) Computer Associates, which did brilliantly in acquiring computer operations software, had a much rockier time with DBMS. It acquired Cullinet, Applied Data Research, and ASK/Ingres — among others — and didn’t have much growth or other joy with any of them.
Indeed, Ingres has been acquired three times, and hasn’t accomplished much for any of the acquirers (ASK, Computer Associates, Actian).
I used to think that Oracle’s acquisition of RDB provided key pieces of what became Oracle’s own extensibility technology. Andy Mendelsohn, however, disputed this vehemently — at least by his standards of vehemence — and his sources are better than mine. Rather, I now believe as I wrote in 2011:
… while Oracle’s track record with standalone DBMS acquisitions is admirable (DEC RDB, MySQL, etc.), Oracle’s track record of integrating DBMS acquisitions into the Oracle product itself is not so good. (Express? Essbase? The text product line? None of that has gone particularly well.)
Experiences were similar for some other relational DBMS pioneers. Read more
|Categories: Applied Data Research, ASK Computer Systems, Computer Associates, Cullinet, Database management systems, IBM, Informix, Ingres, Microsoft, Oracle, Sybase, Teradata||1 Comment|
The news about Ingres being spun off by Computer Associates brings back a lot of memories. First of all, Ingres (then called Relational Technology Inc.) was one of the centerpieces of my first-ever research trip to the West Coast in April, 1982. Second, the day CA’s acquisition of Ingres closed, Charles Wang (CA’s CEO, of course), called me personally and asked me to consult to CA about their forthcoming product strategy. It was an intense, month-long project, perhaps still the single largest one I’ve ever done.
So with no further ado, here some observations of and about Ingres through the years.
- Ingres was of course the first of several DBMS companies spun off from UC Berkeley’s INGRES research project, and one of several started with Mike Stonebraker’s involvement. I wrote about that history briefly in my now-defunct Computerworld blog.
- Ingres (then called RTI) and Oracle (then called RSI, for Relational Software Inc.) were of course arch-rivals. As a general rule, Ingres was first to market with new features such as a 4GL or a truly distributed DBMS. Oracle, however, was the first to market with the features customers most cared about, at a level of completeness they found acceptable. Eventually, when Sybase was a factor too, Ingres was always betwixt and between — everybody’s second choice, but not the first choice of enough buyers to keep on prospering. (Later on in the 1990s, Gupta took over the Ingres role in the low-end market — the product was broader than Powersoft, but who cared?)
- Ingres was eventually merged into ASK Computer Systems. While surely a distraction, that’s not what killed it. Each predecessor company had its own problems, and they pretty much stayed out of each other’s way, at least in product strategy. What killed them is that neither side of the business managed to stay fully competitive in product.
- Ingres’s fatal technological mistake was whiffing on parallelism. And it did so in the most painful of ways. Ingres had a joint development project going in the Portland, OR area with Sequent, to develop a parallelized version of their DBMS. They pulled out due to expense, and Informix stepped in. And that’s how Informix managed to be competitive with Oracle in parallel processing, while lack of competitiveness in that area is what doomed Sybase and Ingres. Ouch!!!
- A second Ingres failing probably wasn’t as big as I thought at the time. This was an inability to offer abstract datatypes, aka object/relational, aka UDBMS (where the “U” is for “universal”). I thought this feature would be hugely important, and my opinion on that score probably was a big part of influencing Informix to overpay for Illustra. But Microsoft has never had the feature, and it doesn’t seem to have suffered all that much in the marketplace for its lack.
- ASK was doing even worse on the product side than Ingres — it never came out with a decent GUI version of the product, although ASK did get a license to resell Baan’s code — and the whole sorry mess was eventually sold to CA. CA has a well-deserved reputation for slashing development costs and profiting from slowly-dying software products. But I watched this acqusition from the inside, and to this day I think they really wanted to make the product competitive. But there was one not-so-little problem …
- … CA ran off all of Ingres’s engineers right after the acquisition. CA’s policy upon acquiring companies was requiring employees who wanted to keep their jobs to sign non-compete agreements. In Ingres’s case, however, that policy was a spectacular failure. Oracle, Informix, Sybase, and much of IBM’s DBMS development were all located in the Bay Area. Finding another local job for these guys (and gals) was EASY. Competitors went into a feeding frenzy hiring Ingres engineers, and there was essentially NOBODY left. In my judgment there was a reasonable chance CA could revitalize development with an aggressive investment strategy, but they ultimately blinked. And with very limited ongoing development, the product obviously faded quickly as a mainstream competitor.
I think I’ll go write about the rest of the story over in the DBMS 2 blog.