On the business page of the New York Times of Monday, April 11, 2005, is one of the most important articles you will read this year about the direction of the enterprise software industry. It's about how IBM is changing its licensing strategies for the tens of thousands of patents the company controls.
The gist of the article is that IBM has realized that cooperation and collaboration in business requires new thinking about cooperation and collaboration in intellectual property. As a result, IBM is planning to give away or otherwise freely license patents in such key areas as electronic commerce, storage, and image processing.The impact of IBM's efforts on enterprise software in general, and SAP in particular, will be profound. Like IBM, SAP too is undergoing a revolution in its thinking about intellectual property and the value of technological and commercial cooperation.
Spurred by the need to broaden the appeal of NetWeaver and its burgeoning emphasis on partnering, SAP is looking for new models of how to seed the market with its own intellectual property, and in doing so grow its business and the business of its new and forthcoming partners.
The fact that these two giants are coming to a similar conclusion about patents and commerce at the same time heralds the beginning a new era in enterprise software that will change forever how vendors and users work together.
It's no coincidence that supporting interoperability is one of the main drivers of SAP's, and IBM's, effort. Getting complex systems to work well together requires broad standards, and while there are plenty of standards bodies around that are charged with promoting varying levels of interoperability, history has shown that the most effective standardization efforts have been by promulgated more by individual companies' efforts than by ponderous and cumbersome standards bodies.
If NetWeaver is to become a standard platform for service architectures and composite applications, SAP has to act more in the mold of an Intel than ISO, the venerable, and painfully sclerotic, standards body based in Geneva.
This means using its intellectual property as a force for cooperation and collaboration, not as a legal bludgeon or defensive bulwark. So keep on eye on SAP's efforts in this regard as SAP's Year of the Partner unfolds. If software systems are to interoperate, software companies must interoperate as well. This is a leadership opportunity SAP can't afford to miss.
Joshua Greenbaum is principal consultant at Daly City, Calif-based Enterprise Applications Consulting.