Time was that the only thing Charles Wang, chairman and chief executive officer of Islandia, New York based software giant Computer Associates International Inc, used to do was buy companies. These companies were typically in poor shape, having passed their prime some time before, and some were so demolished they were practically acquired off the courthouse steps. Wang’s acquisition SWAT team would then sweep in, put hordes of personnel to the pink slip sword, renegotiate contracts in CA’s favor with the assimilated vendor’s user base, slap the prefix CA on the new product portfolio, and sit back as the new division was milked for revenue. This business model of over 60 purchases since the company’s founding in 1976 was hailed variously as either brutal asset stripping, or simply as a kind of diamond-pure mainframe Realpolitik. Wang came to be seen as a kind of bete noire of the enterprise software industry, a figure salesmen used to frighten their customers with, as in If you don’t buy from us CA will buy us – and then you’ll be sorry! No-one was interested in CA’s technology vision because it didn’t have one (or at least one that anyone believed in, though various pretentious post-hoc rationalizations for the latest two or three buyouts were occasionally proffered); no-one was interested in the future developmental paths of any product, such as The ASK Group Inc’s Ingres relational database, after its June 1994 acquisition, because it was assumed there would be no further technical enhancements.
By Gary Flood
Then, from around late 1991, things started to change. For in that year CA releasing information and then software on, incredibly enough, a home grown product, one that it had actually written itself – Unicenter, a cross-platform systems management suite. Around the same time Tony Wang, Charles’ high-performance sports-car collecting brother, the man credited with patenting the CA takeover algorithm, left the company, and in retrospect it now seems that at least some of the demonic cast of Charles’ reputation is more deservedly laid at his financier brother’s door. For Charles, it turns out, is not a vicious capitalist at all, but a technologist, even rather a sweetie, given his well-known concern for humanitarian causes, such as reuniting missing children and the Operation Smile program for reconstruction of the faces of disabled youngsters. At least that has been the message the past couple of years at CA-World, the humongous (25,000 attendees, including 400 journalists from all corners of the globe where CA has bought an outlet) annual user conference it holds in hot, muggy New Orleans every July. New Orleans, incidentally, is a big fan of Computer Associates, and with good cause; the company ripped up all the streets in the historic French Quarter and downtown to install ISDN lines that hotlink the six acre Ernest N Morial conference center and local hotels to the web; and with all those thirsty CA users trawling the blues bars of Bourbon Street until all hours, stuffed after eating their alligator etouffe and other Cajun delicacies, the city makes some $40m per year off of the annual celebration of all that is CA (all the taxicab receipts have CA logos on them, for example). Last week, in temperatures so humid that Sun Microsystems Inc CEO Scott McNealy, who delivered his usual anti-Microsoft (his Javastation password is N-O To NT) gag-a-minute Java Uber Alles speech as one of the keynotes, joked that Charles always books New Orleans this time of year because it’s cheap, those taxis all bore the show’s slogan as well: The Magic Of Software. This theme, which got old pretty quickly, was repeated again and again by both Wang and his able lieutenant Sanjay Kumar, CA’s president and chief operating officer. The opening of the conference Sunday night, for example, featured an irritating magician, Franz Harary, who had two glamorous assistants, Jasmine (also, strangely enough, the name of CA’s nascent OO database, named in fact in honor of Charles’ daughter) and Tina G. (also the way Unicenter’s next version’s name, TNG, or The Next Generation, gets pronounced). Various allegedly interesting and spectacular magical things happened, then with a flash and a bang Wang himself appeared as if by… you know what. I am happy to say that CA has been able to work a lot of magic in the past year, announced Wang. And indeed CA has been going gangbusters, ramping up its Year 2000 solution, and even breathing life into what many took to be undead software lines like its Masterpiece business software line and a new version of its OpenIngres database, hailed by CA as the best rev of the software since 1989. That would probably explain why it was too exhausted to really come up with anything particularly newsworthy for CA World 1997.
The main news event of the week was that Unicenter is being ‘frameworkized’ (CI No 3,200); Jasmine was not covered in any more depth than to promise that it would hit GA in 90 days from the end of the show. However, Wang’s main interest may well have been consolidation of the image of the new CA. In its twenty-first year it is finally being taken seriously as a vendor in its own right. CA was always rated as an awesome money making machine – with $4.04bn in its 1997 fiscal (CI No 3,3165), the company’s stock price has increased 14,000 per cent since it went public in 1981 – but now Unicenter and Jasmine (albeit that the latter has some technological borrowings, these are from a partner, Fujitsu Ltd, not from an acquisition victim) place it as a real independent software seller, not just a supermarket. Plus, the very fact of Unicenter’s existence and purpose marks CA as not just another mainframe maven: To make sure that software magic does rub off on Next Generation Enterprises, you have to go beyond merely buying management solutions that embrace the new technologies [such as e-mail and videoconferencing]. It also means embracing this one basic concept: That the future of computing is fundamentally heterogeneous and multi-vendor, Wang told us all last week in Nawlins. This was just before he disappeared in another illusion, thanks to Franz the showman, reappearing in another part of the hall after a Houdini stunt. In a way, Wang has pulled off his own real-life, far more entertaining Houdini trick; CA is a lot more than the place clapped-out all companies go; it is a powerhouse of a software company whose user base – essentially the Global 2000, given all those DASD farms CA has software on – is the most important, whose alliances (Sun, Microsoft Corp, Hewlett-Packard Company) are with the big boys, and whose revenues will make many a mutual fund manager sleep easier for years to come. In one way, that really is software magic.