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October 23, 1997updated 01 Sep 2016 6:00pm


By CBR Staff Writer

In 1306, Robert the Bruce, not long after having been crowned King of Scotland, was forced to seek refuge from an English army in hot pursuit of him in a dark cave. Pondering his lack of success in throwing off the shackles of his English overlords, the soldier-king was sunk in depression at his failure. Yet, as we all know from the story, he looked up to see a tiny spider trying to climb up its silken thread. Time and again the spider fell, ever returning, however, to finish its struggle to get home. Robert, inspired, picked up his sword with the shouted exclamation: If at first you don’t succeed – try, try again! We’re not sure if there is an equivalent parable in German folklore, but it seems likely Munich-based Softlab GmbH, in its continuing struggle to break into the decisive American marketplace, must seek encouragement from this notion. For Softlab has been conspicuously different from its German cousin SAP AG in being unable to break out of its comfortable Deutsch- speaking home market and become a truly world-stage player. Founded in 1971, Softlab originally made a name for itself as a developer of bespoke software systems for German corporations, and it is from this business, as well as, ironically enough, SAP consulting services, that the company still derives a large proportion of its income. However, in the 1980s it developed a Computer Aided Systems Engineering environment on the mainframe, Maestro, which it sold as a standalone product in Europe.

Instant market share

Maestro in turn evolved into a Unix beast called Maestro II, and around 1992 Softlab was in not-so-secret negotiation to purchase an already established US CASE player with an alleged $300m war chest, with approaches to both KnowledgeWare Inc and Bachman Information Systems Inc. This was after long-term client BMW had upped a 10% stake to 100% ownership of the company, with Softlab remaining a wholly-owned subsidiary of the automobile giant. But these attempts to gain instant market share in a market that had never really warmed to the complexities of CASE, let alone CASE German style, came to naught, and Softlab had to try, spider like, again. Then, in the 1994-1995 period, it came up with the idea of applications maintenance, the idea being that Maestro II was a premier environment for re-engineering of heavy-duty Cobol systems. There was some attempt to sell this idea to the insurance market in the US, but, alas, the initiative met with limited success, according to its Vice President of Marketing (and former Knowledgeware exec) Mike Croxton, at the company’s Atlanta, Georgia based Softlab Enabling Technologies division. We found that the US market was not particularly interested in using a DOS-based product that needed heavy customisation for legacy applications maintenance, says Croxton, who joined the firm in 1993. Certainly this seems borne out by the fact that until very recently Softlab’s US operation could claim an unremarkable client base of precisely one customer, Des Moines, Iowa based insurance company Principal Financial group.

By Gary Flood

But undaunted, Softlab has come back with a new idea, that of what it’s touting as open object-oriented repository technology (CI No 3,130). Where Maestro came out of software engineering projects in the 1970s, the repository in turn has been cannibalized from Maestro II and renamed Enabler. Duly launched in March (CI No 3,118), Enabler has been complemented by a software configuration management tool, Visual Enabler, whose second version hit the street this week, which is closely aligned with the Microsoft Visual Studio 97 environment (CI No 3,171). Softlab thus has four businesses in the late 1990s – systems house work in Germany and, increasingly, the UK and France, continuing Maestro II support, Enabler and Visual Enabler. To drive all this forward in the US, it has abandoned a sales force altogether and shifted to a completely indirect sales model, though Croxton says it now has around a dozen direct clients. It is also hoping that recently inked agreements with Select Software Tools Inc (April), Cincom Systems, Inc (July) and an imminent similar deal with privately held New Yorkers Information Builders Inc, who will all bundle Enabler with their data modelling, Smalltalk development, and EDA/SQL environments respectively, among other things. Croxton takes pains to note that the work on Visual Enabler is mostly home-brewed in Atlanta, not Munich, with a development team bringing up the local office of the 900 strong company to some 35. However, the new strategy is only just kicking off and, while Softlab is notorious for being tight-lipped about financial performance, there is no doubt that the last couple of years have been challenging (painful is Croxton’s own term). The company claims revenue of $120m in 1996, or DM186m, though as of today that would represent only $104m. According to a German poll, that places Softlab as the 12th biggest ISV in the Federal Republic. It seems hard to see its US arm scoring an equivalent ranking any time soon, but Croxton, while acknowledging that he doesn’t have the marketing resources of an Oracle or a Microsoft, sees great potential in leveraging the Microsoft relationship. Is there any problem in trying to sell a repository when Microsoft has just developed its own? For the first time – even in relation to the AD/Cycle period – repositories, with the emphasis being given them by Oracle and Microsoft, are being placed as absolutely integral to application development. For us at the moment, it’s important just to get placed on the short list. Customers are finding that the Microsoft repository, for instance, is still just for smaller workgroups and can’t scale up to the enterprise level, which we can.

Bavarian masters

Croxton is dismissive of the other heavyweight repository vendor, Platinum Technology Inc, which he says has still failed to provide a schedule of delivery dates for the combined Brownstone- Relational Technology repositories it bought in 1995 (CI No 3,219), and sees fellow former Munich company R&O’s Rochade product still being integrated by new owner Viasoft Inc (CI No 3,041), which swooped on it in November 1996, into its Year 2000 toolset. Yet the $100m market Gartner Group sees in repositories by end of next year may pale in comparison with the opportunities for Visual Enabler among Microsoft developers (i.e., all developers), where there is only an estimated 10% penetration of software configuration management tools, he suggests. Softlab staffers occasionally post hostages to fortune by predicting sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars for their Bavarian masters, yet have so far failed to deliver the big numbers. So it attempts one more time to climb the silken thread to respectable US sales, with the onus this time being on the perhaps nimbler salesforces of American (or quasi-American, in Brit outfit Select’s case) companies. After all, in the end Bruce did manage to defeat the English at Bannock Burn and retire in peace; and he didn’t even have to work with Bill Gates to do it.

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