My take on the acquisition of Plumtree by BEA

Several colleagues, coworkers, customers and other Plumtree partners have asked me for my opinion on the buyout of Plumtree by BEA Systems. I certainly have thoughts and comments about this event, but moreover I have several open questions that I want to ask Plumtree, BEA and the community of customers and partners. Of course I have my own take on the answers, but I’m curious to hear from others in the community.

First, let me say this: I feel overwhelmingly positive about the acquisition. BEA is a great company with excellent products (Weblogic, Tuxedo, JRocket) and a solid strategic vision. Most of the articles I’ve read have said that they plan to make Plumtree its own business unit and continue to support Plumtree’s 700 customers. By purchasing Plumtree, BEA has made a strong, albeit implied, statement about the portal market. You won’t read this in any of the articles out there, but it’s a statement that I’ve been making for a long time: Plumtree is clearly the best and the only pure-play horizontal portal technology out there. All of this is good news for Plumtree and for Plumtree partners like bdg.

Now, on to my questions . . . .

Will BEA continue to support Plumtree on .NET?

According to the FAQ published on BEA’s web site, the company plans to support Plumtree on all of the existing platforms and application servers on which it runs. This is a major change of direction for BEA, which has always aligned itself more with the Java/Sun/McNealy vision that the .NET/MS/Gates vision and which ties all of its products to its own application server, Weblogic.

The problem is that IT departments in major companies have their own near-religious beliefs about platforms. Some want “pure” Microsoft stacks (Windows, SQLServer, IIS, .NET/CLR), some want “pure” Java stacks (Solaris, Oracle DB, Weblogic/Websphere/Tomcat/JBoss and Java/JVM) and some even want LAMP stacks (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP).

In order for a portal — the UI integration layer for the enterprise — to be successful in the heterogeneous IT world in which we live, it must run on all of those platforms and it must have a strategy for supporting integration with every platform. It’s clear from their product direction, including their recent decision to support Linux, that Plumtree has known this for a long time. I can’t speak for BEA, but the message I’ve been getting from them for the past several years is that you can solve all the world’s problems — or least all the world’s IT problems — with Java. As much as I like Java, I’ve never quite bought into that vision. The IT world is just too heterogeneous for that vision to approach reality.

I sincerely hope that BEA sticks to this new strategy of supporting the Microsoft stack for Plumtree. The good news is that Weblogic has always run on Windows. Running Java on Windows is fine in my book, but if you tell that to the approximately 500 Plumtree customers who run Plumtree on a Microsoft stack, they’re not going to be pleased. In fact, I think they’ll start looking for another solution, perhaps even Sharepoint.

What will happen to BEA’s Portal product?

The press releases are calling BEA’s portal product a transactional portal for the extranet and Plumtree’s a collaborative portal for the intranet. This is nothing more than an attempt to downplay the competitive nature of the two products. This spin isn’t working for me. bdg has built transactional extranets using Plumtree and I’m sure that enterprises have built collaborative intranets using the BEA Portal. In fact, BEA specifically pitches the collaborative features of their portal product as part of their marketing literature.

Obviously the companies need to make a statement saying that they’re going to support both camps in order to avoid massive customer hemorrhaging. (Look what happened to Epicentric’s customers when they were acquired by Vignette.) It’s good to hear that the near-term plan supports both portal products for the sake of the customers, but I hope to hear some more believable strategic direction from BEA and Plumtree about their clearly competitive portal offerings.

What would make sense to me would be a hybrid that includes most of Plumtree’s compelling out-of-the-box functionality — including collaboration, content management and usage tracking — and merge it with the compelling parts of BEA’s portal, such as the Portal Java Controls and the Portal Resources Designer. Development tools like these will greatly enhance Plumtree’s Java developer offerings to bring them up to speed with their Microsoft offerings (like the EDK’s .NET Web Controls). But there are some big architectural decisions to make. For example, is it better to integrate BEA’s Designer with the Plumtree EDK to help those of us building Java portlets, or should they take an IDE plug-in approach for Eclipse like Plumtree did with the .NET IDE?

The industry press is still beating up BEA for having a Java client portal designer instead of a web-based one just like they beat up Plumtree four years ago because of their Windows-based portal designer (called Content Manager). The answer is simple: BEA needs to webify their portal designer. But if they’re going to live by their new strategy of cross-platform support, anything they build will need to have a .NET equivalent.

This may be cynical, but I think telling all the developers who currently support Weblogic Portal that they’re going to have start thinking about portability to .NET is going to be a hard sell.

How will the merger affect the ship date for Plumtree G6?

Plumtree has set a ship date for G6, the next generation of their portal product. The product is currently in Beta, so we all know that we’re getting close.

The press releases and FAQ do not mention G6 or say anything about the next version of BEA’s portal. If any kind of tangible BEA Portal/Plumtree Portal integration attempts are squeezed into G6, I doubt that they will hit their ship date.

I think it would be a smart move to ship G6 as is — and there’s a good chance that it will happen, given the fact that Plumtree will be a separate business unit at BEA — and then shoot for integration in the next major product iteration, whenever that is.

I hope to hear some clear direction from the two companies on this soon because our customers’ rollout plans are directly affected by information like this.

Will this deal make BEA even more of an acquisition target for Oracle?

Everyone I know — myself included — had a feeling that Plumtree would be acquired some day. But the major questions were 1) when and 2) by whom? Quite some time ago and long before Plumtree had its Java strategy fleshed out, there were rumors of a Microsoft takeover. Then Siebel. Then Peoplesoft. But BEA? I never would have guessed.

I personally thought Oracle would be the suitor, especially after they acquired Oblix, PeopleSoft and J.D. Edwards. After extending its tentacles into almost every enterprise software market (and proving tremendously incapable of producing any decent software applications other than a database), Oracle snapped up ERP, HR and SSO/Identity Management in the blink of an eye. It seemed reasonable to me that a good portal product that could integrate with all those applications would be a clear next target. Oracle’s portal certainly doesn’t cut the mustard. In fact, they often offer it up for free only to be beaten out by Plumtree, which is, ahem, a far cry from free.

Now the next pressing question: is Oracle even more likely to acquire Plumtree now that they’re a part of BEA? Now they’d get an excellent application server and a cross-platform, industry-leading portal. You know it crossed Larry Ellison’s mind when he heard the news. Food for thought.

What will happen to the name Plumtree?

Back in late 1998, when BEA acquired WebLogic, Inc., they kept the company’s preexisting market share and mind share intact by transitioning the name of the company into the name of what has become BEA’s flagship product. Oracle has done the same with its recent acquisitions.

BEA would be wise to do the same with Plumtree. “BEA Plumtree Portal” may not have a ring to it right now — but mark my words — it is soon to become a household name in the world of enterprise software.

* * *

For all of you who asked, those are my thoughts on the merger. Sorry it took me almost a week to come up with a response to your questions, but if you recall from an earlier post, I was teaching a Plumtree training class all last week. Anyone who has taught training knows how exhausting that is, hence the delay in putting my thoughts on (virtual) paper.

As always, your comments are most welcome.

One Reply to “My take on the acquisition of Plumtree by BEA”

  1. A thoughtful and thought-provoking blog, Chris. Obviously the definitive strategic statements from BEA and Plumtree must await the close of the transaction. But in the meanwhile, I recommend you read up on BEA’s AquaLogic brand and strategy.

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