Financial Crisis: The Tech Innovations at Risk

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September 2008 will certainly go down as one of the blackest months in Wall Street history. Venerable financial institutions such as Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and AIG abruptly vanished or were radically overhauled. Investors lost loads of money -- in some cases, fortunes -- and ordinary taxpayers are now finding themselves funding an industry bailout that could cost a staggering $700 billion, perhaps even more.

Also hit hard by the financial services industry meltdown are the tech vendors that depended on high-flying investment banks, brokerages, insurance companies, and related firms for revenue -- as well as to popularize and mainstream a variety of cutting-edge products and services to IT organizations across industries.

Now that most of the major investment banks and sundry financial services firms have either evaporated, transformed, or been absorbed by other companies, an untold number of vendors in fields ranging from business intelligence to cloud computing are sadly waving good-bye to many of their prime customers. "For some vendors it's undoubtedly going to be very painful," concludes Andrew Bartels, a research analyst at Forrester Research.

As October dawns, vendors that once served a seemingly reliable and stable market are now awakening to a starkly altered reality. "It may not be a new world, but it's certainly going to be a different one," says Jeanne Capachin, research vice president at Financial Insights, a research firm that serves the financial services industry.

With many vendors reliant on financial industry sales now struggling to navigate a radically transformed business landscape, customers in fields far removed from Wall Street will begin noticing market changes, primarily in the amount and types of available products and services, but perhaps also in the number of vendors they can turn to for solutions. "Given the important role the financial services industry played in the tech market, changes are bound to happen," Bartels says.

"This will mean, for many vendors, a need to refocus on customers in fields outside of financial services," says Vivek Mehra, head of the financial services practice at IT services company Keane.

Which Technologies -- and Providers -- Are at Risk?

The most obvious technology at risk from the financial services firms' meltdown is analytics, including business intelligence. Fewer customers with cutting-edge needs, combined with slowing revenue, may have the long-term effect of stifling innovation. "It's the chicken-and-egg scenario," Mehra says. "Without the financial services vendors around to drive advancements, innovation could suffer."

But a silver lining to this cloud may be that analytics developers will refocus on mainstream market needs while downplaying exotic and esoteric offerings, Mehra suggests.

And even BI and analytics vendors may be able to mount a near-term strategic comeback, Bartels says. However, to do so, they will have to work hard to make their offerings relevant to surviving financial services firms as well as to enterprises at large. Vendors will have to focus "on providing software that's seen as a 'must have' as opposed to a 'nice to have.'" Over the long run, such a trend could lead to BI and analytics software geared more toward real-world needs than the arcane requirements of investment traders. "For many vendors, it will mark a return to the real world," he says.

Beyond BI and risk analytics, vendors active in such diverse fields as SOA, SANs, and cloud computing can also expect to feel at least some of the effects of a collapsed financial services industry.

SOA infrastructure, for instance, is widely used by financial services firms for transaction integrity and scalability. Therefore, SOA vendors who targeted financial services firms can expect to experience many of the same customer pullback and revenue issues as their BI and risk analytic counterparts. On the other hand, since financial services firms didn't play as big a role in driving SOA innovation as they did in the BI and analytics markets, enterprise customers shouldn't see any serious impact on long-term product development.

The same calculation generally holds true for the SAN market, says Mehra, where vendors over the years sold financial services firms an impressive number of systems for managing and protecting vast data repositories. But, as is the case with SOA vendors, SAN innovation isn't heavily dependent on financial services firms, so the damage shouldn't significantly extend beyond vendors' bottom lines, he notes.

For cloud computing vendors, however, the outlook appears somewhat darker. In fact, next to BI and risk analytics, cloud computing vendors may stand to lose the most from an eroded financial services market. Forrester's Bartels notes that some financial services firms led the way in using cloud computing's vast resources to test novel investment strategies and alternative model scenarios. "Not much of that is going to be happening for financial institutions in the near future," he says. The good news is that cloud computing is a nascent market with relatively few enterprise adopters heavily involved in the technology. As a result, any negative impact should be muted and limited mostly to the vendors' revenue streams.

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