Monday, November 24, 2008

Sybase CEO sees mobile commerce as future

John Chen, chairman, CEO and president of Sybase, has led a dramatic turnaround for the Dublin company by focusing it on infrastructure software that helps companies go mobile. Now a leader in mobile middleware, device management, messaging and mobile databases, Sybase topped $1 billion in revenue last year and is on pace for a record 2008. The next big challenge for Sybase is to get consumers to consider mobile commerce and payments through their phones. The Chronicle caught up with Chen to talk about the economy, mobility and the future of smart phones.

Q: Can you talk about the economy and its effect on your business and the high-tech sector in general? How has it changed in the last six months?

A: So far, we've had three record quarters in a row and we expect to continue that for Q4, and ... we'll have a record year. But the revenue line is going to be slow (for tech companies), and people expected that mostly because the export market is going to be weak. Will it affect Silicon Valley? Absolutely. Overall, I think the tech sector will have a difficult 2009, mostly because of the global market and not so much because of the United States. I've seen business activity in the United States that's encouraging. One thing we've been doing well in is financial institutions. It sounds illogical, but they're still buying - they're just buying different things. Now they're buying analytics, because they want to analyze exactly what risk they're taking and what the business information people are telling them. We're also doing well because of mobility. Some companies are spending money on mobility because it's ... a much cheaper channel of outreach to customers and to market to their customer in some cases.

Q: Can you talk about the direction your company has taken in terms of staking its success on mobility?

A: In the early 2000s, when the beginning of the tech bubble burst in the e-business commerce world, we weren't really a big player in that space. At the time, we had a choice to either get into it or get into a new paradigm. We decided more value could be added not only to our business but to our customers by getting into new things. We thought with broadband, e-commerce, cheaper devices, more available bandwidth wirelessly, that has something to do with how business operates in the future. That was seven years ago. When we first started, we didn't do more than $10 million revenue in one year. Next year, we're going to do over $400 million in revenue for mobile.

Q: What is your vision for the mobile worker - how will mobility figure into their work on a daily basis?

A: Our view is there is no need for any connected stations of any sort. It's about anytime, anywhere to anybody. All the enterprise messaging software connectivity should be able to go wireless or wired, it should give you the exact same experience. Are we there yet today? No. But over the years, we will see more and more convergence.

Q: Where are we right now in terms of mobilizing workers, and what do you and other companies need to do to achieve this vision?

A: Enterprise needs to treat (the mobile phone) as a platform that is part of the enterprise stack rather than treat it is as just a communications device, which is profoundly different. You have to change the business application rules. It could be a Research in Motion, iPhone or a Symbian device, and it should not make any difference. There should be no difference in sending your information wirelessly or over wires, except on the security side. What we need to do is continue to expand the capability of software to make it so enterprises can adopt it as a platform.

Q: What kind of effect is the iPhone having on business?

A: Companies are very intrigued by the iPhone. It's created a lot of interesting questions and demands, and it helps me particularly because for first time people start thinking: "I may have some part of my organization on RIM, or some use specialized devices and some may use Symbian or Linux, and some have the iPhone, but I want their experience to be the same and I want to control all of that." In the past I wasn't able to convince customers that heterogeneous connectivity was very important, but now it's completely different. Now you need to accommodate multiple devices.

Q: How do you see smart phones evolving beyond enterprise? Is this a device we'll all be carrying around every day?

A: About 30 percent of phones sold are smart phones; it's the fastest-growing segment of phones today. You will see smart phones get cheaper and soon enough there will be no need, except for giving a kid a phone, for a nonsmart phone. The question is how much you pack into it.

Q: Your company is also pursuing mobile commerce and mobile payments. It's not something Americans do much of right now. How do you see that changing?

A: Yes, it's not common in the U.S., but it's common in other parts of the world. The future is the idea of a credit card embedded to a phone number or device. The ultimate thing is we can pay each other and you would get confirmation that there has been a transfer. It's very early in the market. Symbian's intention is become the plumbing guy. I don't want us ever to become the guy that takes $5 from you and gives it to someone else. We want to provide the platform and plumbing to allow a mobile payment system to come about.

Q: Any thoughts on the new Obama administration and how it can best help the tech sector?

A: The good news is that he's talking about having a chief technology officer, and rumor has it that it's someone that's near Silicon Valley. That's good. I hope the CTO will be someone who is very focused on helping the tech industry grow. I hope they'll be a good voice in Washington talking about the needs for investment, innovation, protection of patents and will be someone who promotes trade. And if Obama carries through with promises to invest in green tech, I think it's all a positive thing. And also with immigration, we need to make sure we have enough skilled laborers in the U.S. to help the tech industry, which is always looking for skilled people. These are all things I hope we'll be able to tackle with a good CTO.

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