The Two-Second Advantage: Talking with TIBCO’s Vivek Ranadivé

He might not have the profile of a Jobs, Ellison, or Zuckerberg, but in a region where so many corporations are identified with their iconic CEOs, Vivek Ranadivé stands out even more than most as the face and voice of his company. The tagline at Palo Alto, CA-based TIBCO Software (NASDAQ: TIBX) is “The Power of Now,” which was also the title of Ranadivé’s 1999 New York Times business bestseller. Ranadivé headlines TIBCO’s annual user conferences in Las Vegas, was the starring character in a recent Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker article on underdogs, and is ubiquitous on the cable business shows, always extolling software’s ability to help companies respond more intelligently to events in real time and predict what’s going to happen next.

“If you have just a little bit of the right information a couple of seconds or minutes in advance, it’s more valuable than all of the information in the world six months after the fact,” Ranadivé says. It’s a premise he calls “the two-second advantage,” which will also be the title of his next book. The theme in nearly all of Ranadivé’s writings, speeches, and TV appearances is that certain kinds of information—say, what a customer in a grocery store is ready to spend money on—have a very short shelf-life. If businesses want to act on this information before it’s too late, he argues, they need a special kind of software.

TIBCO’s answer, which is baked into the name of the company, is The Information Bus. A bus, in the hardware world, is a computer’s central data spine, carrying information between the processor, memory, and input/output devices. At his first company, Teknekron, Ranadivé developed the idea of a software bus, which would link different programs and carry crucial information between them. The idea transformed the way electronic trading floors work on Wall Street, and after Ranadivé sold Teknekron to Reuters, he decided to export the concept to other industries. TIBCO Software, founded in 1997, succeeded almost immediately, going public on the NASDAQ in 1999.

These days the Information Bus is more a theme than a specific product; it pervades all of TIBCO’s product lines, from messaging systems to private cloud infrastructure software to the adapters that allow applications from companies like SAP, Oracle, IBM, and Salesforce to talk to each other. But Ranadivé says that for all of his books and speeches, the idea of responding to events in real time has only just started to sink in with businesses around the world. In fact, he’s fond of saying that the 21st century started in 2009. “Just as the 20th century started in 1908, with the advent of the automobile, 2009 was the year when we saw that there were more cell phones than landlines, more laptops than desktops, more girls in college than boys, when our first post-Baby Boomer president took office, and when more money was spent using debit cards than credit cards.” 2009, as it happens, was also the year when TIBCO’s offshore services revenue tripled.

I sat down with Ranadivé recently for an hour-long conversation at the company’s headquarters. He offered numerous cases of real-time information in action, drawing on examples from the wireless industry, the casino business, and other areas. The Mumbai, India-born engineer, who trained at MIT and Harvard, also offered unvarnished opinions about competitors like Oracle and Progress Software, and talked about Silicon Valley’s strengths and potential weaknesses as a hub of innovation. He’s bullish on technology’s ability to keep transforming our lives, but worried that the U.S. isn’t investing enough in educating the next generation of innovators. A condensed version of our conversation follows.

Xconomy: How would you describe TIBCO’s mission?

Vivek Ranadivé: At TIBCO, our mission is that if you get the right information in the right place at the right time you can make the world a better place. We are now at that proverbial tipping point when companies are flocking to this kind of real-time, event-driven technology. So for us that is very exciting. Everything I have worked toward for my entire working life is now going mainstream. Fifteen years ago, real-time information was only available on the trading floor. Now everywhere is a trading floor.

The next big trend is, how do you put that information in the right context. It’s not sufficient simply to have the nervous system that gets you the information. You have to make sense out of it.

X: What you’re talking about sounds a little bit like the semantic Web—having not just data, but an understanding of what the data is about.

VR: We were way ahead of our time. We didn’t call it the semantic Web, but we’ve been doing that for the last 10 or 15 years. But that’s not sufficient. You don’t want to have to ask the question. You want to have the information find you, rather than having to search for the information. So it goes beyond talk about the semantic Web.

Say that you’re married and your wife goes to the bank. Say you are a valued customer of the bank. Then the bank should know the context, and should know that your wife is as important as, maybe more important than, you. Right now banks can’t do that, but banking is becoming more event-driven.

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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