John Chen

The Sybase chief says he's excited to capture what he predicts will be double-digit growth in data-intensive mobile applications.

Sybase, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in November, is a survivor: The enterprise software vendor faced near-bankruptcy in the late 1990s and a challenge in 2008 from a dissident investor who sought to break the company apart. Today, Sybase is on a roll. Its stock price has doubled in the past year. Wall Street loves the company because its technology makes high-speed stock trades possible, and some large enterprises are using Sybase software to manage their iPhones.

Long-time CEO John Chen recently talked with Computerworld about where the company is headed next.

Your stock was in the twenties in 2008. Earlier this month, it reached $44.40, the highest it had been since January 1995. Besides Sybase's revenue growth, how much credit do you give to the $300 million stock buyback that hedge fund Sandell Asset Management pushed you to do in 2008? Not much at all. We still have 82 [million] to 83 million shares outstanding. This whole Sandell thing was a distraction. Whatever. It's not about buybacks or other mathematical gimmicks. You have to execute well, and you have to be able to grow revenue.

But couldn't Sandell's threat to launch a proxy fight with you have inadvertently helped tell the story about Sybase being undervalued? No. We've had that story out for a very long time; [Sandell] missed the big picture. Had I [broken Sybase apart like] they asked us to do -- which at the time I knew was wrong, because the synergies get completely broken apart -- you wouldn't see our results today.

I've heard about your real-time analytics apps for Wall Street. Yes, our complex event processing software for risk platforms. The financial vertical is so excited about it, they are turning into design partners. They want to handle both structured and unstructured data in a more real-time basis.

Was this how you were able to grow despite all of the bank failures we've heard about in the past year and a half? The funny thing is that although there were bank and brokerage failures, trading volumes never subsided. The algorithms behind the trades are getting more sophisticated. We sold lots of [Sybase] IQ systems to do counterparty risk analysis, not only in the U.S. and Western Europe, but in China, where the firms tell me they don't want to repeat the mistakes the U.S. made.

Are you worried that the SEC will rule that real-time trading systems like these give big firms an unfair advantage over smaller investors and should be outlawed? No, because everybody can buy one.

Well, anyone with a certain amount of money. It's not that much money. And pretty soon, we will be releasing a hosted solution. Even small hedge funds will be able to come in and rent time. We are releasing it by June. It will cost about $37,000 a year, or 25% of the license cost.

You talked about how well Sybase IQ is doing. SQL Anywhere is, according to one of your competitors, the "dominant lightweight database." Based on that, and how well Microsoft and IBM are doing in the database market, do you think Oracle's acquisition of MySQL should be held up for being anticompetitive? Oracle is saying, "Hey, all of these other guys are doing so well." In the short term, it is probably a pretty good argument. On a long-term basis, today's small company could very well be tomorrow's big company. So this needs to be analyzed.

What are your predictions about the adoption of mobile devices such as phones and netbooks by enterprises? Two new features -- geolocation and near-field communications -- will generate limitless new data-intensive apps that know where you are, who you are, why you are there. We're very excited. Even if the markets stay bad, we think growth is still going to be in the 10% to 20% range. In a good market, that will be even higher, because in the enterprise alone, adoption will be doubling.

You just released iPhone compatibility for your Afaria enterprise management product. How popular is it? We had a deal [in mid-2009] where someone literally bought 1,000 licenses in Europe just for managing their iPhones. We have other customers talking about buying hundreds and hundreds of licenses.

I can tell you that a lot of people here at Sybase run their business using an iPhone. We are able to provide executive dashboards, route purchase orders, device management. We are testing a CRM module for SAP to run on the iPhone and Windows Mobile by [the end of] Q1. Other modules, like ERP, will also come in 2010. So there's an awful lot that businesses can do securely with an iPhone.

As the "unwired enterprise" continues to evolve, what kind of new products might you be creating? Things like enabling collaboration or social networking during conference calls. You'll be able to click once, call and share data with [me] on a real-time basis while we're both on a conference call on our devices. This will be seamless. There are people working on technology that will automatically transfer the conversation you were having on your cell phone to your IP-based phone as you walk to your office desk. Basically, communication and computing are going to be inseparable. Look at HP buying 3Com, or what Cisco says it's going to do in the server business.

You've been running Sybase for almost 13 years. How much longer do you think you'll stay on as CEO? As long as I still make progress and the shareholders want me to, of course. You know, I'm quite intrigued where we are right now. We're early to a market -- mobile commerce -- that promises to potentially explode. So I don't have any immediate plans to not keep doing this.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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