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Trapeze not flying high over Magic Quadrant

Every year Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for wireless LAN infrastructure has some winners and some losers. One or two vendors will emerge from the crowded quadrant of niche players to become a market leader, a visionary or a challenger. And one or two other vendors will slip back into the crowd of niche players. This year, one of the vendors who came out on the losing end is accusing Gartner of having, at the very least, an appearance of a conflict of interest.

Brian Johnson, director of public relations for Trapeze Networks, called me last week and implied that Meru Networks is receiving favorable coverage from Gartner over Trapeze. Gartner placed Meru in the visionary quadrant for the second year in a row, while Trapeze slipped from visionary status to niche player.

Johnson revealed to me that Tim Zimmerman, one of the Gartner analysts who wrote this year’s Magic Quadrant, is a former employee of Meru Networks. I checked around and indeed Zimmerman was director of industry marketing for Meru Networks from Octbor 2007 to January 2008. Johnson also pointed out that Gartner’s former research director for wireless LAN technology, Rachna Ahlawat, is currently the vice president of strategic marketing for Meru.

Johnson explained that Trapeze has had a good year and is a superior company to Meru. He said it “stretches the imagination” that Meru could be ranked higher than his comapny.

“We have a higher market share than Meru,” Johnson said. “We have more OEM relationships. And we are a public company with a large bankroll behind us while Meru is a private company that is rapidly burning through its cash… In terms of ability to execute, I think that Trapeze has a higher ability to execute than Meru can.”

Johnson also told me that Trapeze brought eight products to market this year and three of them won awards (I looked through a list of press releases on Trapeze’s website and didn’t see that many product releases, but perhaps I missed a few). He also pointed out that Trapeze won the largest wireless LAN deployment in the world this year when it closed a deal with the University of Minnesota.

Johnson was reacting to a story about the Magic Quadrant which I wrote last week. When I talked to Mike King, Zimmerman’s coauthor, for that story, he told me that Trapeze’s downgrade was reflective of its relative silence on the market since it was acquired by Belden over the summer. He suggested that things have slowed down at Trapeze while Belden goes through the process of absorbing it. And he predicted that Trapeze could lose some key OEM partners when its deals with those expire in a few months. All this can be fairly typical for mergers and acquisitions. Motorola experienced a similar decline on the Magic Quadrant when it bought Symbol Technologies, but it has since rebounded and is now identified as a market leader by Gartner.

Now any industry veteran will tell you that analysts take jobs with vendors all the time and research firms like Gartner commonly hire analysts from the vendors they cover. Ahlawat left Gartner for Meru in June of 2007 so it’s been well over a year since she’s had any relationship with the firm. However, Zimmerman left Meru less than a year ago, so it was worth my talking to Gartner about this issue.

First I talked to Andrew Spender, Gartner’s vice president of corporate communications. He said Gartner employs a variety of measures to ensure that its analysts are independent and objective.

“First we have our principals of ethical conduct and our code of conduct which all our analysts sign up to as soon as they join the company,” he said. “They have very intensive training in what that code of conduct means and how they need to adhere to it. It’s very specific in terms of accountability.”

Spender also said that no piece of Gartner research is ever the work of one single analyst.

“When you buy a piece of research or become a Gartner client, you obtain the research from Gartner, not from an individual analyst. Each piece of research is peer reviewed. Our community of 650 analysts have a formal obligation to do peer reviews of other analysts’ research to ensure that any kinds of inconsistencies, any errors of data collection or any errors of conclusions are challenged and corrected before the research sees the light of day.”

I also spoke to Larry Perlstein, Gartner’s ombudsman (Gartner is the only analyst firm I know of that employees ombudsmen), about this matter. He has already conducted an investigation of Trapeze’s complaint.

“Basically I didn’t find anything that made me concerned that there was any real fact in Trapeze’s issues. The analyst that they expressed a special worry about, who was formerly at Meru, was there for only a very short period of time, about three months. It wasn’t clear that anything in that involvement was going to dramatically influence this particular piece of research. Most of our analysts come from vendors. As part of our hiring process we try to ensure that people have the capacity and potential to be balanced and objective.”

On the same day that I spoke to Johnson at Trapeze about this issue, I happened to chat with David Callisch, vice president of marketing at Ruckus Networks. Ruckus is another niche player in this year’s Quadrant, ranked a little lower than Trapeze.

“Tim Zimmerman and Mike King are both very stand up guys,” Callisch said. “I thought we had a pretty mediocre spot on the Quadrant, but to be quite objective, who are we to say? Vendors always think they deserve a better spot… But Tim and Mike did a lot of due diligence. I think they did a good job even if we got a lousy spot.”

He said that Gartner placed Meru high probably because the firm likes the innovative single channel approach Meru takes with its access points, which solves voice roaming very well. He said he has doubts about whether this approach can scale as well as more mainstream wireless LAN technologies, but he doesn’t fault Gartner for giving Meru high marks for their technology.

Callisch went on to call out Trapeze for its acquisition by Belden. He said Trapeze has a very good product line, but it had marketed its technology poorly, driving down the value of the company.

“They ended up being sold to Belden for pennies on the dollar and that hurt the valuation of other [wireless LAN] companies” he said.

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