BEA’s Alfred Chuang plots a new revolution in enterprise software

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You would never accuse Alfred Chuang of a lack of ambition. Having sold BEA Systems to Oracle for $8.5bn, he is back in business for himself – with $10.6m in his pocket from Andreessen Horowitz and a goal of transforming the way business applications are written.

When I caught up with Chuang on Wednesday, he was just taking the wraps off his latest venture – Magnet Systems – and enthusing about the opportunity to rewrite corporate software from the ground up. At BEA he championed the middleware layer that underpins much of today’s e-commerce – a mixed blessing, since it eventually brought an unwelcome (but irresistible) takeover bid from Oracle.

Now, he says, it’s time to look past all that: enterprise applications need to reflect the new technological realities that have already been reshaping consumer behaviour. Cloud computing, social networking and the proliferation of new mobile devices are forces that are still not reflected in the silo-ed approach to corporate applications. So why not rip it all up and start again? (This is how Chuang describes his ambition on his corporate blog.)

Coming from anyone else, this might sound like the height of hubris. Corporate IT departments are heavily invested in the current architecture, and the sort of ideas that Chuang is championing – like opening up access to a company’s systems so that its customers have better visibility of their overall relationship and transactions – sound like anathema to security-minded CIOs. With a staff of 17, what chance does Magnet have of advancing such a revolutionary agenda?

But Chuang has the track record and the connections at least to get a serious hearing. After two years operating under the radar, he has just raised the money from AH (along with a further $2m put in by himself and angel investor Bill Janeway of Warburg Pincus, an early backer of BEA). He also has a beta version of his first application to show off his ideas.

Eventually, Magnet plans to open its platform (called WIN – for Workplace Interaction Network) for companies to build and deploy their own applications on.

It is a grand ambition, certainly. But Ben Horowitz, who has joined Magnet’s board, doesn’t mince words in a blog post of his own, declaring Chuang “the greatest CEO of my time”. Setting expectations high is a fine way to start out, but such statements will take some living up to.

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