Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Software Vendors, Repent!

John Thompson, the CEO of Symantec, is warning other leaders of software companies that they need to rethink their business models. He admits that it is not an immediate problem, but he sees something on the horizon for the legacy software industry.

In an interview with Financial Mail for their October 24th issue, John talked about the emerging trend of "software as a service" (or Saas) as opposed to the traditional way of selling shrink-wrapped products. Here is an excerpt from that article:

"[John] believes software companies don't need to start panicking - yet. In the long term, though, their profit margins will be eroded as the industry moves to a service model, he says. 'Software businesses have gross margins in the range of 80%-90%, while services businesses are in the range of 60%-65%. A well-run software company will have pretax operating margins of 25%-35% and a services business of about 15%. It's a very different model.'

Thompson says software companies have to reinvent themselves as services businesses, which will be difficult for many. But if they don't do it, they could find their future in doubt.

'Some company, without a legacy-installed base or a legacy revenue stream, is able to run up and take your business away from you,' Thompson says.

But the shift will take longer than many in the industry assume, he says. This will give the big software players time to adapt.

'The revenues of Saas companies will not overtake the revenues of [traditional] software [companies] for a long, long time," Thompson says. "It's not a big threat to the profitability of software companies in the near term.'

He says the annual turnover of the world's largest dedicated Saas vendor,, is dwarfed by Microsoft's yearly revenue. 'If [ CEO] Marc Benioff were sitting here, he'd say software's dead. That's just crap. Marc's a good friend of mine, but Marc is just promoting what he's doing.'"

Back in the days before companies could afford their own mainframe computers, people would connect up to somebody else's system and pay for the time they used it. Software vendors would install their applications there and let different customers access it on the shared system.

The 1970s relationship between Tymshare and Information Builders is a good example of how BI software was offered as a service at an early point in computing history. When platforms became affordable, vendors began selling products to each company individually.

John is right that software pricing models will definitely need to change. For example, Information Builders still prices their BI product based on the size of the hosting computer. Never mind that the development costs are the same for Windows, UNIX, and System z and that they only have a single code base now anyway. If you want to run their BI on your Windows box, the price tag is about $40,000, but tell them you want to run it on your mainframe and their number goes up to probably around $1 million.

Their pricing model is based on the assumption that the bigger your computer, the more business value you will get, so therefore you should pay more. They offer you a perpetual license, so you pay them 20% of a purchase price every year for annual maintenance ($8,000 for Windows and $200,000 for the mainframe) which allows you to always have the latest release. If you get a bigger machine after the BI software is installed, you are going to be found out and have to pay the infamous "upgrade fee."

Pure software vendors will pay attention to certain financial ratios, one of which is "revenue per headcount." They want to divide their annual revenue by the number of employees and come up with a ratio of about $250,000, but the higher the better. To improve their score, they only have two choices: either increase revenue or reduce the number of employees. If they have challenges on the revenue side, they will get rid of unnecessary employees (some go so far as to convert employees to partners or subcontractors so these individuals no longer impact the official ratio).

Software consulting firms are going to have much lower revenue per headcount ratios as they are limited by the number of hours in the year that any given employee can bill for services. Unlike the software vendors, the services organizations might be happy with a ratio of $150,000 to $180,000. Because Saas companies are not necessarily pure services businesses, they may be able to achieve a high ratio here, although they may have troubles attaining the high figures of today's pure software businesses.

For the sake of their customers and their own employees, hopefully legacy software vendors will pay attention to John calling out in the desert, "Repent!"

1 comment:

Khaled said...

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Blog interested in software and new technologies, Honestly, I admire them and their content values
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I am a project-based software consultant, specializing in automating transitions from legacy reporting applications into modern BI/Analytics to leverage Social, Cloud, Mobile, Big Data, Visualizations, and Predictive Analytics using Information Builders' WebFOCUS. Based on scores of successful engagements, I have assembled proven Best Practice methodologies, software tools, and templates.

I have been blessed to work with innovators from firms such as: Ford, FedEx, Procter & Gamble, Nationwide, The Wendy's Company, The Kroger Co., JPMorgan Chase, MasterCard, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Siemens, American Express, and others.

I was educated at Valparaiso University and the University of Cincinnati, where I graduated summa cum laude. In 1990, I joined Information Builders and for over a dozen years served in regional pre- and post-sales technical leadership roles. Also, for several years I led the US technical services teams within Cincom Systems' ERP software product group and the Midwest custom software services arm of Xerox.

Since 2007, I have provided enterprise BI services such as: strategic advice; architecture, design, and software application development of intelligence systems (interactive dashboards and mobile); data warehousing; and automated modernization of legacy reporting. My experience with BI products include WebFOCUS (vendor certified expert), R, SAP Business Objects (WebI, Crystal Reports), Tableau, and others.