IBM is continuing to dance around the margins of enterprise applications with its move to buy ILOG , a maker of business rules management middleware .

The $340m deal will make Big Blue’s WebSphere swag-bag that little heavier. But even seasoned followers of the Queen Mother of IT must be scratching their heads trying to remember what Websphere really means these days, such is the unwieldiness of the brand.

Several years ago I nearly got chased out of town by an IBMer at a conference for suggesting that it should reorganise its software unit to be a bit more nimble and tell a simpler tale to customers. (I wouldn’t have minded but it was in New Orleans -- the Big Easy is a great city and I’d just found a bar to call home in the French Quarter.)

Even back then the story had got more confusing than an episode of The Prisoner . Today, IBM and Oracle seem to be in an race to build up the world’s largest miscellany of enterprise software programs. These companies have become planets to be explored rather than recognisable fiefdoms of even 10 years ago. It might work for them up to a point now that they seem to have cracked the code for making M&A work, and customers continue to have faith until the next procurement round. However, a lot of people are unimpressed by the levels of integration and R&D that follow the incessant deal-making.

It’s still possible that IBM could take another look at what it’s doing in software and decide it needs a new brand, spin-out or other form of disaggregation so that it can see wood for trees. IBM’s old boss Lou Gerstner wrote a book about his turnaround of the company called Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? There, he wrote that his biggest decision was deciding not to disassemble the component parts of the company. He proved that elephants can dance for a while, but even John Travolta and Muhammed Ali had to stop dancing some time. And IBM’s an even bigger elephant today than in Gerstner’s day.

The other route, if it truly believes that the answers to the world’s problems lie in scale, may be to get even bigger by going back on what it has been saying for many years and joining in the ERP space. That would presumably involve a combination with SAP or (please don’t say it’s so) Oracle.

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