In the old days Computer Associates was the great assimilator, the company that hoovered up clapped-out mainframe software suppliers. In this first phase, say 1976 (when it was founded) to 1992, the company was feared by its takeover targets and largely dreaded by its existing or potential customers, who basically got shafted by cruel price hikes and restrictive licensing practices (hands up all those Cullinet customers!). Then there was a weird change. CA wrote some of its own software for once, and it was actually quite good. CA-Unicenter was a landmark product, introducing a way for enterprises to manage their heterogeneous systems. Systems management had arrived, and on the back of it, despite making a smaller number of acquisitions, CA grew like topsy, organically. In both incarnations customers and the market knew where they stood, and were happy as a result. But now CA seems to be in a third phase, and we are not so sure. Neither, for all its careful branding and alleged positioning, is CA, as far as this long watcher of the firm is concerned. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that CA's real seismic shift happened only nine months ago, when the firm announced it was (finally) shifting from monolithic framework sales of Unicenter to a modular approach, and it hasn't really kicked into gear yet. The company also decided it was focused on not just Unicenter, or even Jasmine, the chimerical object database it used to endlessly promise as the answer to a maiden's prayers, but six areas: enterprise management (Unicenter); security (eTrust); storage (Brightstor); application lifecycle management (Allfusion); data management and application development (Advantage); and portals and business intelligence (Cleverpath). Simultaneously, CA's energetic founder Charles Wang effectively stepped aside into a chairman's role (we understand his main focus now is growing the company's Asian business), with his deputy Sanjay Kumar finally stepping into the spotlight as president and chief executive. At the same time, CA was embroiled in a number of nasty problems. It had to fight off a takeover battle itself in the shape of last summer's proxy battle, and it has a number of ongoing disputes with US financial authorities on both a quietly simmering, highly-controversial executive compensation fiasco, and equally disputed accounting recognition issues stemming from its "new CA business plan". This the backdrop to last month's CA-World conference. What on Earth was it for? It is easy to see why 10,000 CA customers came, judging from the literally inches-thick final agenda, which was full of useful-looking birds-of-a-feather sessions and technical product updates. Some may even have come to hear the keynote from "America's mayor" Rudy Guiliani, or to be told by Kumar that "customers, customers, customers" was what CA was (and always had been, it seems) about. But anyone trying to get a wider view came away empty handed (nay, empty minded). CA used to always be something of a gang - now it's a cult. Every presentation repeated over and over the triple mantras of "customer", "Web services" and "wireless". In the same month that Butler Group warned that the nirvana of Web services (see page 12) was at least 10 years off, CA never tired of telling us that Web services are the answer. And in the same week that Ericsson, Nokia and Lucent laid off tens of thousands of staff and US figures revealed the first overall drop in technology spend in the first quarter since 1958, CA said new services based on bleeding-edge pervasive computing was where the action was. IT Today asked Kumar what the new CA was about, and this was his answer: "We have not done a new acquisition in 24 months, and if we do any more they will be small pieces of technology. We are focused on internal growth solely. We do believe we know where we are going, and that is even closer to the customer." Hmm. There is either less, or more, to this than meets the eye. We left CA World feeling very much that what we had watched was more of a US-style infomercial than a substantive presentation of company direction. Are you lashing out your company's IT spend on Web services and wireless? If you are, please tell Sanjay - he would really love to meet you, and make you feel a part of the happy (if rather strange) family CA version 3.0 is.
IT Today editor Gary Flood reports on new directions and the latest technology from the CA World conference in Florida.
Read more on Business applications