Open Assaults

IBM knows how to club competitors.

Using Open Source for the betterment of your products is well understood. Using Open Source to grind your competitors face into the dirt is more of an art. Yet when done well it accomplishes the primary objective of competitive marketing – attacking your opponent’s strengths.

For technology marketing tyros reading this, understand that attacking your competitors weaknesses is a losing game. Weaknesses are typically marginal worries to consumers. If your competitor’s weakness were serious then they would have never become a competitor. Even if the weaknesses were important, they can be corrected and thus your assaults will be short lived.

Attacking their strengths however is to eat their souls.

Your competitor’s strengths are what made them successful. Any time you can assault their strengths you attack the very foundation of their prosperity. Successfully making their strength into a weakness will do more harm than nuking their headquarters. After all, they can build new offices once the ground stops glowing.

The trick is that competitive strengths are … well … strong. You must make customers believe the opposite of the compelling reason to buy that your competitor has created. Often this is merely impossible. If one were to attack Oracle database strengths – their robustness and scalability in particular, attempting to convenience people that these were Bad Things – you would be laughed at as their slapped you into a straight jacket.

Open Source allows you to do something even more insidious. It allows you to attack a competitor’s strength by promoting the same strength. And no, I am not wearing a straight jacket at the moment. It is out at the cleaners.

IBM lost the battle for the big database market. Depending on whose numbers you like to use, DB2 is well behind Oracle, Microsoft and MySQL. With Oracle now positioned to control the fate of MySQL via the Sun Micro acquisition (assuming that antitrust lawyers don’t put Larry Ellison in a legal straight jacket), Oracle runs away with nearly all of the market. Granted, MySQL does not add much to Oracle’s top-line, but the Open Source option keeps customers in their camp by covering all bases (graphic by JoinVision.com).

Unless, of course, there is an alternative.

While Oracle is acquiring MySQL to provide product to the low and mid market, IBM is investing in EnterpriseDB to reduce Oracle’s high-end revenue stream. EnterpriseDB offers the Open Source Postgress database with an added layer than makes it look like an Oracle instance. Users have Oracle’s PL/SQL interfaces atop a database that costs about 90% less than what Larry wants. Granted EnterpriseDB and Oracle databases are an apples and kumquat comparison. Oracle offers a lot of features that EnterpriseDB will not provide.

By and large that doesn’t matter.

IBM’s move to include EnterpriseDB with DB2 licenses attacks Oracles strength on two fronts. First, it gives customers a reason not to buy Oracle instances for non-critical applications. Customers need to have the number of database technologies kept to a minimum so developers and support staffs have less technology to master. If customers do not need the esoteric aspects of an Oracle database, having EnterpriseDB and IBM support are good options.

The juicy bit though is that IBM is using Oracle’s PL/SQL interface to bleed off enterprise adoption of MySQL. Since cost savings are the primary attraction to Open Source databases, EnterpriseDB offers Oracle shops a means for achieving a unified set of interfaces to databases while not enriching Larry, who according to recent news stories is the highest paid CEO in the United States, making north of half a billion bucks in 2008.

IBMs move then is removing the advantage of Oracle’s MySQL acquisition and simultaneously attacking Ellison’s high end revenue stream. Poor Larry will likely only make $400M this year.

Expect more of the same from other vendors. Open Source creates products that offer real value and real competitive threats. These products can be leveraged to hobble competitors. Large vendors will continue hunting for Open Source upstarts that can cause competitor convulsions.

In this instance though, I wonder if there is another feature afoot. IBM previously participated in a $10M round funding for EntepriseDB. They have more than a passing interest in EnterpriseDB. In theory EnterpriseDB’s PL/SQL layer is portable. Since IBM is bundling EnterpriseDB with DB2, there is a chance that the EnterpriseDB application interface could be ported to DB2, which offers some of the esoteric database features required by large enterprises. This may be the beginning of a concerted program by IBM to not only block new Oracle sales, but to migrate existing accounts.

You gotta love technology marketing. It’s like warfare but we use bucks instead of body counts to keep score.


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