"From a cynics' point of view," says Chris Horn, the founder, chairman and recently reinstated CEO of middleware company Iona, "we have failed".
Some shareholders in Ireland's largest software company might nod in agreement at this, but Horn is not talking about his company's recent performance.
Rather, he is referring to the software industry's failure to solve the problem of integration. Back in 1993, he says, shortly after Iona was founded, there were all kinds of middleware products available, including transaction processing monitors, message brokers, Corba request brokers, and various enterprise application integration (EAI) tools. "Today, we still have all that, but we have web services and J2EE as well," says Horn.
That is creating a problem. "In the same way that there is an EAI problem, there is an EMI [Enterprise Middleware Integration] problem," says Horn. Companies, he says, need a way to link disparate integration tools together in a loose "federation". Iona may have the answer, in the shape of a new product and, indeed, a new strategy. Artix is a web-services based software family that helps organisations that use many different types of integration tools do just that. Using Artix, says Horn, it will be possible to quickly create these high-performance links without having to do any rewriting or re-architecting of the various systems.
Horn envisages that Artix will also be used by many companies that are seeking to gradually reduce the number of middleware systems or standards they have. Once they have installed a federated Artix platform, it will be easier to replace components one by one.
This is important, Iona believes, because many companies plan to update and simplify their architectures, using web services where they can. "Going in with a message to change everything to one middleware platform is like changing engines in mid-flight."
Horn knows that that message doesn't resonate well, because it was tried, with little success, by Barry Morris, the Iona CEO who left the company in May 2003 after poor financial results and a strategic review. Horn returned as CEO with the goal of getting the loss-making company back on track and into profit. In the six months to June 30, Nasdaq listed Iona reported losses of $37.3 million on sales that nearly halved to $33.4 million.
Horn is careful not to heap all the blame onto Morris for Iona's problems. But clearly Morris' strategy of turning Iona, which had built its success on the now fading market for mission critical Corba integration tools, into a "one stop shop" for middleware solutions was unrealistic, given the intense competition from big rivals such as IBM and BEA.
Iona's customers had also become increasingly confused by its attempts to conquer a succession of markets, ranging from portal building software, to EAI, to application servers, to web services. These products will now variously be bundled into Artix, or they will be incorporated into the Orbix request broker, or they will be dropped altogether.
The new message is much simpler. Iona will concentrate on the high-end integration tools market with two main product lines. Corba tools, where only Visigenix is a serious rival, will continue to be developed and sold, especially in sectors where integration is key; and the Artix products will be targeted at companies with complex, high end integration requirements. In this way, Iona confidently expects to quickly return to profits; but if it fails, Ireland's most successful IT company may find itself with a US parent.