Softworld – No frills, few thrills

If IT marketing is taken as an economic indicator, it was clear from the Softworld in Accountancy and Finance show at the National Exhibition Centre that suppliers are anticipating a rocky ride for the next year or so.

The tightening market conditions were reflected in the straightforward, no-nonsense approaches of both visitors and exhibitors. Nurses in uniform, giveaway gimmicks and even some major vendors were conspicuous by their absence.

The nearest anybody got to promotional pizzazz was PC accounts vendor Pegasus, which was offering a 50% discount to customers who trade in their old software.

‘Lots of people who have exhausted the functionality of their existing software are looking to change,’ said Pegasus marketing manager Stuart Anderson, explaining that the trade-in offer was designed to appeal to second and third-time buyers. Customers looking for replacement products tend to be more direct. ‘They know what they want – generally what’s missing from their existing packages,’ he said.

Mark Howes, product manager for Peterborough Software’s financials range, said that even though there was ‘nothing new’ for visitors to see at the show, people had definite projects and budgets on the go. ‘They’re interested in rapid implementation. On one contract, the client wants to be live by 1 November,’ he said.

While the likes of Pegasus, Peterborough and Sage enjoyed brisk competition at the low-to-middle end of the market, spare a thought for the giants of enterprise resource planning.

JD Edwards, Baan, Oracle, PeopleSoft and SAP – or ‘J-Bops’, in current analyst parlance – have taken a hammering on world stock markets over the past weeks. SAP’s share price fell to DM628 – a 25% drop since 25 September.

According to JD Edwards marketing director Trevor Salomon, most of the big multinational organisations have committed themselves to one of the ERP gang. And, given the lengthy implementation times of some ERP software, the millennium deadline was skewing the market.

As a result, most of the J-Bops now offer rapid installation schemes and are developing the services side of their businesses. JD Edwards has launched an outsourcing service, and, like Oracle, is considering supplying its software on a rental basis.

ERP for hire

Rental and bureau-type services were not directly correlated to the economic scenario, argued Salomon. ‘Paying so much per user, per month makes it easy for budgeting and allows clients to get up and running quickly with a solution that will carry them beyond the year 2000,’ he said.

And where JD Edwards and Oracle lead, you can safely assume the others will follow. ‘It’s rare for any vendor to do anything that allows them to stay ahead for more than six and a half minutes,’ explained Salomon.

The UK’s QSP has also gone down the outsourcing route. According to public-sector marketing manager Ken Cole: ‘Clients are looking at spending money more intelligently – what are the paybacks and how can they finance it?

‘People in the public and private sectors want to avoid capital expenditure and outsourcing allows them to transfer a lot of the risks and liabilities such as software obsolescence and the the cost of database administration.’

While the big boys were just getting into the field, added Cole, QSP has been doing it for over two years.

Oracle and Microsoft – two of the most powerful influences on accountancy software – did not actually attend Softworld. Oracle relied on resellers such as Easms and the Wier Group to promote its Internet-based Release 11 Financials applications.

‘The product is one of the best-kept secrets in the business,’ said Wier Systems Oracle sales manager Richard Green, ‘but the marketing could be better’.

The air of suppressed anticipation at the event could be explained by the imminence of version 7 of Microsoft’s SQL Server database. In the space of little more than two years, Windows NT and SQL Server have become the preferred configuration for most accountancy software buyers.

Analysts and vendors serving the top tier, however, have questioned NT’s scalability beyond 300 users, mainly due to the lack of multi-user capabilities in the SQL Server database engine.

Version 7 of the database could change all that, according to Andrew Turner of SAP, whose company has helped Microsoft tune the product to handle large-scale multi-user ERP applications. Among other goodies promised in the new release is Decision Suite, an on-line analytical processing system that will allow management accountants and senior executives to extract and examine trends buried in underlying applications driven by SQL Server. ‘SQL Server 7 will be a true contender against Oracle 8,’ predicted Taylor.

It will also make an impact lower down the food chain, added Phillip Taylor, company secretary of UK developer SquareSum: ‘As far as we know, SQL Server 7 will be all-encompassing and very cheap.’

Shakeout on hold

If SQL Server lives up to its billing, it could spark similar convulsions in the market as MS-DOS, Excel and Windows did before it. But don’t expect too much fall-out before 2000, suggested JD Edwards’ Salomon.

‘A lot of companies may have very low market capitalisations, but nobody wants to carry the responsibility for year-2000 upgrades that some suppliers may not be able to achieve,’ said Salomon.

‘Companies that are likely to do the acquiring are still growing – so why invest in potential problems?’

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