A severe case of buyer’s remorse for SAP

Contact: China Martens

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Would SAP still have gone ahead with the $10m January 2005 purchase of fledgling third-party apps support player TomorrowNow (TN) had it had any inkling then of the financial cost more than five years later (a $1.3bn payout to Oracle and a ton of legal fees), as well as the dent to its previous sterling reputation? TN was always a loss-making business for SAP and at its height attracted less than 400 customers, a tiny proportion of the tens of thousands of Oracle apps customers.

SAP had been hoping to only have to pay out $40m over the intellectual property theft case that Oracle initiated against its bitter ERP and CRM foe and its TN business back in March 2007. Oracle alleged that TN, with SAP’s knowledge, had engaged in ‘massive theft’ of its software and related support materials through a series of illegal downloads with TN staff using customer passwords to access Oracle’s technical support websites for its JD Edwards, PeopleSoft and Siebel families of ERP and CRM apps. TN had then allegedly used the stolen materials to support its customers, offering them support at 50% less than Oracle’s rates.

More recently, SAP set aside $120m, but had in no sense been prepared that the jury would find so strongly in favor of Oracle, which had been looking for $1.7bn or more. SAP is set to appeal and ‘pursue all its options’ to reduce the award. This whole saga is far from ended – already, it’s been the stuff of Silicon Valley soap operas, with Oracle CEO Larry Ellison speaking out against new Hewlett-Packard CEO Leo Apotheker, a former CEO of SAP, and failing to serve a subpoena on him in a bizarre take on the video game Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

Over the course of the case, Oracle had sought to continually expand the scope of the lawsuit, while SAP had tried to limit its focus. A few months into legal proceedings, SAP had admitted to some inappropriate downloads of Oracle material at TN, but shortly before the trial began, it decided not to contest contributory infringement, effectively contradicting earlier assertions that SAP executives didn’t have knowledge about what was going at TN.

The jury decision in favor of Oracle could well have a chilling effect on the remaining third-party support market. It’s one that never took off to the degree that its advocates had been expecting. In January, Oracle filed suit against the leading third-party support vendor, Rimini Street, which is headed by a cofounder of TomorrowNow. The suit was very similar in tone and scope to the TN one, but went into less specifics. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens now, since Rimini Street has been gearing up for a legal battle of this sort for some time.

Much has changed since SAP bought TomorrowNow, a unit it put up for sale, and, after finding no buyers, shuttered in October 2008. The move was triggered by Oracle’s multibillion-dollar purchases of ERP and CRM players PeopleSoft and Siebel. The widespread expectation was that Oracle would push those acquired customer bases to adopt its own E-Business Suite apps, but there was no large user exodus and Oracle has delivered new versions of its purchased apps. Indeed, Oracle has also tempered its big push around a new generation of apps, dubbed Fusion, with the initial release due next year.

So, customers in general are under much less pressure to migrate from the apps they’re currently using. At the same time, those same users are facing increased maintenance fees, which are a steady revenue source for both Oracle and SAP. It’s effectively at present in both companies’ interests to have no third-party apps support market. It will be interesting to see whether each of them revisits the concept to be one where they could have some revenue involvement. Over time, each player will face having to support a wider and wider variety of apps, versions and deployments, and they may find that taxing on their resources and therefore not as lucrative as in the past. Both companies are keenly aware of the gradual wearing-away impact of the SaaS apps market, where maintenance fees are substantially less or are factored into the cost of per-user, per-month subscriptions.