Comment: A blast from the past

To my surprise, I found an old industry stalwart is not only still alive but forging ahead with new and relevant products.

To my surprise, I found an old industry stalwart is not only still alive but forging ahead with new and relevant products.

One of the first and most basic virility checks you perform on any supplier is to see if it is a public company. The hidden agenda is simple: if you are private you are either a struggling start-up, or you are a no-hoper from way back when who has never really had anything solid to offer.

If you have been private since 1975, runs this logic, you must really be a dud. Given that Microsoft was founded in the same year and now runs this quadrant of the galaxy, don't waste my time.

The company I am referring to is of course dear old Information Builders Inc (IBI), started and still run, amazingly enough, 27 years later by Gerry Cohen. The New York software firm has gone from being a proponent of 4GLs (remember Focus?) to middleware plumbing (remember EDA/SQL?) to, well, what?

I had long since dismissed Information Builders as belonging to the same weird sphere of software legacy hell as Cincom or Accpac: sort of still there, but in the same sense as my copy of Genesis' Selling England By The Pound LP is - at the back of my record collection, a valued asset, but played about once a decade.

But I was wrong. Last month I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time with IBI executives and customers. The company has neither gone away nor evaporated. Indeed, it is going from strength to strength. It has a valid position in the business intelligence market (we will be looking at this area in more depth in our July/August edition); it has new and relevant product in the shape of the latest incarnations of Focus and EDA, Webfocus and iWay; it has retained a lot of its existing customer base as well as attracting at least some new users; and, perversely enough, in the era of Enron (the Watergate of capitalism, as some US observers are calling it), being a private software company is actually cool again, as it means your survival chances are tripled and you don't have to inflate sales to tell the Wall Street bookies something sexy every three months.

Of course, there are still issues. IBI is grown up enough to admit it has disappeared from view and needs to rev up its marketing efforts (and the customers largely agree). Gerry Cohen is a sweetie but still overruns his presentations by 90 minutes and still has a country called "West Germany" in his code examples.

But I was impressed by the coherence of the IBI story and the strength of its technology and customer messages. Being private isn't always bad, it seems.

This month we have two great pieces on where the iSeries is at, a fascinating study of where mobile computing has gone wrong, and a useful overview of EMC. Hope you find them as rewarding as I did meeting up with the past - maybe future? - in the shape of IBI.
This was last published in June 2002

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