Applications

BEA woos nontechies with new software

The company takes aim at ordinary businesspeople--and bigger sales--with new product line.

Facing slowing sales to its traditional customers, BEA Systems is trying a new route: pitching its software to nontechnical businesspeople frustrated by the slow pace of IT change.

BEA plans to introduce a new product line that will be sold under a separate brand and released in stages over the next several months, BEA executives told CNET News.com. The software is designed to let businesspeople create and make changes to Java code without the need for programmers.

BEA sells server software and development tools for building and running business applications. Its usual customers are Java software programmers and higher-level technology executives such as software architects and chief technology officers.

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What's new:
BEA is planning new products to let businesspeople sidestep programmers in the IT department and modify systems themselves, without spawning costly, time-consuming software development projects.

Bottom line:
BEA faces a sales challenge: Letting a marketing director, say, alter the company's business processes may be technically feasible, but not necessarily advisable--a simple change could trigger technical problems. Also, BEA may be playing catch-up: Several specialized software companies as well as larger firms already have similar offerings.

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The company's new product line will target businesspeople, such as a purchasing director or a business analyst, who don't have technical training but understand how new software should work. BEA's goal is to expand its sales beyond the limited pool of technical professionals and Java programmers, executives said.

"This will be addressing the significantly larger business user market," said Alfred Chuang, BEA's CEO. "Ultimately, users will have control over the applications."

From a sales standpoint, bypassing IT departments to sell directly to business unit heads has become an increasingly common method to coax more money from corporate customers. With the approach, software vendors hope to accelerate the sales process and find new sources of revenue.

Though the new product line is unlikely to generate a major cash windfall for BEA in the short term, its launch is a significant milestone for the company.

BEA has seen its license revenue slip for four straight quarters and in the past year has had to retrench after a number of high-level executive departures.

The company's core business is under fierce attack from different directions. Industry heavyweights Microsoft, IBM, Oracle and SAP are each pursuing the same infrastructure software, or "middleware," market. And open-source Java applications servers, notably from JBoss, are putting pressure on the company.

BEA's reputation as a cutting-edge, innovative company, which has helped it land business in the past, is being tested as well. "A number of the company's best-recognized technology leaders have left the company over the past year, throwing...BEA's reputation into question," Charles Di Bona, financial analyst at Sanford Bernstein, said in a recent note.

Indeed, rather than discussing long-term new products, the company for the past several months has focused on boosting its revenue through expanding its sales channels and improving its internal operations. By disclosing that it is working on the "next generation of middleware," BEA is indicating that it intends to grow through new product development and different customers.

"On strategy, there's no question that BEA has pulled in their horns a bit," said John Rymer, an analyst with Forrester Research, who noted that the company has chosen to focus on near-term execution. But "it's important to expand their market of customers by getting into this early stage market."

BEA's new software line will build off its existing server products, including its business process automation server, its QuickSilver integration software, and its Liquid Data, an XML-based data-access product, Chuang said. People will be able to "subscribe" to data feeds based on events and have information delivered to mobile devices, he added.

BEA is planning to release major upgrades to its existing product line this year, starting with the WebLogic application server version 9 this spring and an update to its entire server software suite in the second half of the year, according to Chuang.

With the company focusing on improving its near-term financial health and delivery of revenue-producing upgrades, it's likely the new product line won't be completed until next year. Neither code names nor final product names have been attached to the new line.

Cutting out the middleman
With the new product line, BEA will tackle a long-standing problem in the software industry: Custom business applications take months or years to create and are often difficult to modify once they're finished. Many application projects are deemed failures because they come in over budget or do not match up to the business's intent.

People who understand company processes, notably business analysts, often communicate application requirements to programmers, who do the actual design and coding. BEA's plans call for giving tools directly to businesspeople such as these, allowing them to modify the system without spawning a costly and time-consuming software development project.

The concept presents BEA with a sales challenge: Allowing a marketing director to alter the company's business processes may be technically feasible, but not necessarily advisable. A simple change could trigger technical problems, such as overloaded systems or security lapses. Also, there may not be clear roles and responsibilities for defining or changing business processes within an organization.

BEA expects that sales of the software will require a large amount of education around "IT governance," or rules and procedures regulating how and when changes can be made.

"One of the things we're going to be challenged with is how we make sure the things that people can do are limited to what makes sense, and really designing an application so that it can be changed by business users," said Jim Rivera, director of technology at BEA.

"A line of business users can take a look at what's going on in an application, get visibility into the process, and actually affect some change in the business," Rivera said.

For example, a business analyst could use work-flow tools to look at the progress of a claims-processing system. If a bottleneck in the process occurs, the person could cut out an unnecessary approval step or reassign people to the task.

The adoption of service-oriented architectures--a software design method for sharing and combining modular programs, or "services"--helps bring business users into the realm of software development, Rivera said.

Once a company defines its services in terms that a businessperson can understand, such as purchase order verification service, it becomes feasible for business users to "wire together" prewritten services. BEA's intent is to allow businesspeople to make changes through a configuration tool, rather than touching the actual Java code, Rivera said.

Several specialized software companies as well as larger companies already have similar offerings, which are usually referred to as business process management software.

Work flow-oriented tools from companies such as Ultimus let businesspeople modify a business process in software, noted John Rymer, an analyst at Forrester Research. Other companies, such as PegaSystems, sell so-called rules engines that let businesspeople modify company policies, such as changing the limit on a customer's credit card.

Larger BEA competitors are also actively in pursuit of nontechnical businesspeople.

IBM purchased a company called Holosofx in 2002 to gain process modeling tools, although they still require deep technical skills, Rymer said. Microsoft, meanwhile, has built some work flow-oriented tools into its Office desktop suite with InfoPath, which allows end users to build forms that can be sent through a multistep work flow.

Another BEA competitor, Oracle, has chosen not to sell a separate product line aimed at businesspeople.

Instead, the company is enhancing its existing programming tools to allow people of differing skills to work in a manner that's most comfortable, said Ted Farrell, chief architect at Oracle's tools division. People can work in many ways--working directly with Java code, using visual work-flow design tools or tweaking the text of XML configuration files--depending on the task at hand and skill level, he said.

"The assumption that there are two or four types of developers is flawed. There are thousands of types of developers," Farrell said. "We're not trying to create a box that confines the user."

BEA's pursuit of a bigger customer base may be a good idea, but it will be very difficult for the company to sell outside its well-known customers in corporate technology departments.

"This is a different audience that BEA is not used to working with. They're a developer company," Rymer said. "They are trying to play catch-up to the leading edge."