How times have changed. When I was a lad, you knew where you stood with Computer Associates. They were the bad guys - the company that ate up other defenceless little companies. They were the Borg from Star Trek, although a less likely figure to fill the role of Borg Queen than CEO Charles Wang it would be hard to find.
But you knew where you were. Whenever any other software company hit hard times and speculation would mount that it would have to find a buyer, the list of possible purchasers would always include the inevitable phrase '...and there's always Computer Associates'.
This week in Florida however it was a different company that laid out its stall. One that was keen to distance itself from its acquisitive past and to prove itself as an innovator and a genuine force majeur in the software industry. In the process, it's questionable just how clear it now is exactly what it is that CA stands for. It might be an exaggeration to say the company has an identity crisis, but it's not as easy to categorise it any more.
The most striking aspect of this year's show for me was the low - nay, practically imperceptible - presence of Charles Wang. Wang has long been one of my favourite IT industry bigwigs, ever since he assaulted me after a press conference by hitting me over the head with a rolled up press release and telling me not to ask awkward questions. I'd hasten to add he then proceeded to give me an impromptu one on one interview in which he addressed all my supposedly difficult questions with ease.
Wang is a remarkable fellow and one with enormous pragmatism. He used to be incredibly difficult to deal with and this reflected itself in how CA interfaced with customers and the press. It was only with the mid-1990s takeover of Legent, when the US Justice Department threatened monopoly investigations into the purchase, that he realised the benefit of having a good relationship with press and analysts and became far more media savvy overnight.
But Wang has given up the CEO mantle and his long time sidekick Sanjay Kumar has stepped up to the mark. It's about time. He's been hanging around the throne so long he was beginning to seem like the Prince Charles of the software world. Kumar is very different kettle of fish - whereas Wang is bluff and stoic, Kumar is smoother and more thoughtful in his approach. He clearly wants to make CA in his own image, no mean feat after over a quarter of a century being shaped by the sheer force of Wang's personality.
For applications vendors, there are great possibilities in this new CA. Where once they might have feared that the CA shopping cart would trundle past their doors, it is unlikely that the once dreaded software supermarket will be adding anything else to its second-hand shelves in the near future. Instead it will focus on taking its biggest home-grown success in the shape of the enterprise management software Unicenter and extending it into as many areas as possible.
Allowing for some lack of clarity surrounding its ACCPACC thinking, CA has clearly signalled it doesn't want to play in the applications space itself. From all the noises being made by Kumar, he clearly hopes that the disposal of interBiz will allow CA to partner more easily with existing applications leaders such as SAP and Oracle by ceasing to be any kind of direct threat to them. Well maybe Sanjay, we'll see. It's difficult to see just how much of threat SAP would have perceived interBiz to be, but only time will tell if this helps you to be loved by the rest of the industry to any great degree.
With Kumar making his mark, and government and financial investigators sniffing around, CA is embarking on its second quarter century as a very different beast. On the UK political scene, it took Tony Blair to shake off the traditional Labour Party image and create the electorally acceptable New Labour. Whether Kumar can shake off the old image of CA and create a more market friendly New CA remains to be seen, but no-one should underestimate him. On the whole, customers were pretty happy with CA this week in Florida and that's not something that many software companies can boast.
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