Brave New OpenWorld

Two years ago, in the middle of his keynote speech at OpenWorld in Los Angeles, Oracle chief executive Larry Ellison wanted to read something to the audience. He hesitated for a moment, and then with an air of hesitation he reached inside the pocket of his suit-jacket and pulled out a pair of glasses.

“I hate getting old,” he sighed, and everyone laughed, because we knew how true this was. Ellison is such a product of California — the tan, the loose-fitting suits, the laid-back sense of entitlement — it pains him to admit to even the smallest weakness.

He’s even more vulnerable now. With the acquisition of Informix earlier this year, IBM completely changed the competitive landscape for enterprise databases. Microsoft and Sybase are both still in the game, but no one’s watching them the way they are the DB2 vs. 9i debate.

Oracle got in on the conversation quickly, its representatives e-mailing the afternoon the deal took place. I spoke with Carl Griffin, the company’s Canadian technical director, who questioned Big Blue’s ability to effectively integrate the two products. At the time I believed him, but looking at the sort of overlap and integration hurdles that would greet the merger of Hewlett-Packard and Compaq, I think IBM is more than up to the task.

Oracle, on the other hand, will be using this year’s OpenWorld conference (which begins Monday) to prove it can offer the complete solution it has been bragging about for so long. Ellison suggested this would happen shortly after last year’s conference, which was all about catching up in the application server segment. It hasn’t happened yet. We thought it was coming out in March, but it didn’t make it until May. Delays, of course, are as much a part of Oracle’s routine as they are Microsoft’s: the final testing phase of 8i put off shipments to Canada by months.

More important is the way in which it finally hit the market, with a cut-rate price 65 per cent below DB2. This seemed desperate. Application servers, which will clearly play a major role in the evolution of Web services, is not an area where a price war really makes sense. We had also been told that the app server would be bundled with the database. This would have been a neat way for Oracle to have one of its products ride on the coattails of its flagship offering, but the company must have gotten a bad vibe from its customers: it emerged as a separate product.

When I went to OpenWorld, Oracle was still at a point where it felt ready to dabble in areas that looked promising but were still developing. During that same keynote, for example, Ellison spent a good portion of time touting the benefits of network computers. Shaquille O’Neill bounded up the stage to discuss a project whereby his charity would put machines developed by an Oracle subsidiary, Network Computer Inc., into poor communities. Months later, network computers went back into that netherworld with smart cards, videoconferencing, and other hyped technologies that no one cares about.

As the show gets under way this week, Oracle will be getting back to basics by touching on all the right technology trends: its clustering capabilities, Web services and XML integration. What it needs to do is articulate a compelling message about the business problems its products can solve.

At the Conference Board of Canada’s Customer Relationship conference this week, I was fascinated to hear how Oracle’s Sales 3i helped Hewlett-Packard get its own house in order. As a testimonial, it was first-rate. With competition getting intense, these customer stories will be more important than any product Oracle chooses to exhibit.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Shane Schick
Shane Schick
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