SaaS has been around forever

Everything old is new again.

This couldn’t be more true than in the examination of Software as a Service.

If you start at the beginning of mainframe computing and the first remote log-in (some time in the 1940s between Dartmouth college and Bell Labs in New York), you get the first example of accessing computational functionality.

In the ‘80s, with the arrival of more computing power in smaller footprint, the concept of client-server came along. This was still the era of LAN/WAN and some connectivity to the Internet via TCP/IP.

The ‘90s kicked the concept of the network as the computer into full gear. While at Sun Microsystems then, I was responsible for marketing the Java technology, which provided the first universal programming environment for writing web-based applications that could run on any computer anywhere.

The first instantiation of cloud computing came about at the end of the ‘90s and early 2000 era with Application Service Providers. This was more the equivalent of private hosting. In other words, they took applications that you had been running internally within the four walls of your business and located the hardware and the software off-premise as a dedicated application for your business.

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The SaaS consolidation trend

Consolidation. It’s the name of the game in the world of software. And as software manifests itself as a service (SaaS), the service companies are following the same path of consolidation.

If previous trends are any indication, we can expect the following:

Rapid innovation, which causes disruption.

Innovators battle it out with competition.

Some survive, some don’t and either get acquired or die.

History as an example

Let’s look at one example, the enterprise infrastructure software world. In 2000, there were a dozen or so companies — some startups and the big iron players such as IBM and Sun — trying to own the market. One company, BEA, starting making headway.

They acquired a smaller competitor, WebLogic, and this became the cornerstone of their revenue. They expanded and grew to be the big fish in the pond of enterprise infrastructure software with $1.5 b in revenue. (At the time, I believe they set the record for a software company reaching the $1 billion mark.) Then a bigger fish — Oracle — swallowed BEA. The enterprise infrastructure software (installed type) is now completely consolidated within the larger giants such as Oracle and Microsoft.

Or, let’s step back in further. Back to the future of the 1980s. Word processing was the killer app for PCs. Wordperfect quickly beat out competitors such as Wordstar and Multimate to be the king of the hill. Wordperfect’s stickiness was in its macros, keyboard shortcuts that, once you had learned them, you were reticent to try any other word processing app. Then along came Microsoft Word. With the inside track on DOS and then Windows APIs, Microsoft was able to displace Wordperfect as the predominant word processing app.

There were still holdouts: the legal profession in particular was dragged kicking and screaming into the new world. The killer death blow came when Microsoft cannibalized their own app and subjugated it to be part of its Office suite. And with that and a little magic known as OLE (object, linking and embedding), Microsoft could make drag and dropping from Excel, Powerpoint and Word seamless to the user.

The rest, as they say, is history. In the 2000s, search went through the same competitiveness, until Google, through a better search algorithm and little bit of luck as it stumbled upon the concept of Adwords and Adsense, beat out the competition.

Business Intelligence went through its innovation phase in the 2000s as well, and by the end of the decade, the major players were swallowed up.

What’s next?

So what can we expect to see in the world of SaaS (Software as a Service)? Mulesoft was recently acquired by Salesforce for a whopping $5.6 billion.

The interesting sidebar on this acquisition is that it came one year after Mulesoft went public. What motivated Salesforce to wait a year? Why didn’t they swoop in prior to IPO to offer a premium that would have saved them a few dollars.

Could be a few explanations. Perhaps the team at Mulesoft was more eager in testing the waters of the public offering. It could also be that Salesforce was — at least allegedly — a target of a takeover itself at the time Mulesoft went public. Perhaps Salesforce had its hands full.

Other significant acquisitions include Appdynamics scooped up by Cisco, just prior to Appdynamics IPO (the usual timing for these mergers). A study by a San Francisco firm tracked 95 software companies from 2005 onward. Seventy-eight percent — over three-fourths — of those companies have been acquired in the time period.

SaaS, I believe, is heading the same direction.