Lane Hiring Is Key

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Many observers agree that a key factor in Oracle's recovery was Ellison's 1992 hiring of Raymond Lane as president of Oracle USA. Since then, Ellison has relied on Lane, now Oracle's president and chief operating officer, to run internal operations. "I think they are very good for each other," said Curt Monash, president and chief executive of Monash Information Services, Lexington, Mass. "Ray brings a lot [to the table] that Larry doesn't have, and Larry is a smart enough man to recognize that, and vice versa. I think Larry Ellison is one of the great public speakers and showmen of the era," said Monash.

Except for a year-long hiccup the company blamed on the Asian crisis during parts of 1997 and 1998, Oracle has mostly thrived since Lane arrived from consulting firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton, where he headed the Information Systems Group that specialized in IT consulting. Annual revenue had been stagnating at about $1 billion when he arrived and has grown to more than $8 billion today -- making Oracle the second largest independent software maker after Microsoft. Oracle has seen the fall of the non-relational database business through the 1980s, and the decline of traditional relational competitors Ingres Corp., Sybase Inc. and Informix Corp. in this decade. At the same time, Oracle has become a major player in the packaged ERP applications business, generally seen as the number two player behind German giant SAP AG and ahead of PeopleSoft and Baan.

While relying on his genius, Oracle has also been forced to overcome Ellison's penchant for championing new ideas at inopportune times. Ellison has long pushed video technology, which has yet to find mainstream use. Also witness his push for the so-called Network Computer in the mid-1990s that slowed Oracle's momentum when the technology failed to take off as he predicted. And for years, Ellison gloated that the so-called Sedona client/server development environment was going to change the way applications were built. Development of that toolset was unceremoniously stopped before its formal introduction by Ellison a couple of years ago with the acknowledgment it was already hopelessly out of date with the emergence of the Internet. And Ellison had championed Oracle's object-relational database technology long before Oracle built it due to a perceived threat from an emerging group of object database makers a decade ago.

There is also the constant talk that Lane is looking at opportunities to become CEO at other technology giants. Lane was said to be a candidate for the Novell Inc. post filled by Eric Schmidt, as well as the recently filled CEO positions at Hewlett-Packard Co. and Compaq Computer Corp. Some observers add that Ellison's apparent pre-occupation with beating Microsoft Corp. could cause the firm to make some unsound strategic decisions. Finally, Ellison has even shown an interest in running for governor of California.

Java, Internet decisions

Nevertheless, Oracle has made decisions over the past year or so that should help it establish a strong beachhead in the Internet wars. The company has embraced Java in both its database and tools products. Oracle 8i incorporates an application server in addition to its Java Virtual Machine code. And officials say XML has become a key technology for each of Oracle's businesses over the past year or so. Oracle's embrace of standards represents a radical shift from the old Oracle and is garnering high marks from analysts. Many observers say the firm's Internet strategy is giving Oracle an edge in a hotly contested applications business in which most suppliers are struggling to maintain flat revenues.

Oracle is on a crusade to attract new developers to its platform. A traveling iDeveloper show has circled the globe this year to convince developers that the Oracle tools are competitive with others on the market. "We need to build a strong relationship with developers," said Jeremy Burton, vice president of Internet platform marketing. "We need to make developers successful. The thing that impresses developers is a tool that has all the latest and greatest features. If they can use the tools to learn Java, to learn XML, they can make a lot of money."

"We want to leverage the platform," said Vince Casarez, vice president of tools product marketing. "The new systems programmers want Java. We've got to make it easy for them." Casarez said Oracle plans to expand its effort to sell tool-database combinations into the ISV channel, taking on suppliers like Bedford, Mass.-based Progress Software Inc.

Java is the centerpiece of Oracle's Internet strategy to not only boost the firm's challenge to Microsoft and attract a new generation of developers, but "because it's the most productive development environment we've seen," said John Magee, Java tools product marketing manager. The Oracle implementation of Java can "overcome any concerns about [Java's] performance and scalability," he said. Magee said Oracle will continue to support its proprietary PL SQL language, and does not expect it to be replaced by Java, at least in the short term. "Java is an Internet language," added Sara Gardner, director of tools product marketing. "There are still a significant number of people interested in PL SQL, but the number of Java programmers out there is increasing quickly."

Oracle has also made moves to expand its component-based development offerings. The ambitious Business Components for Java toolset began shipping to beta sites in June with general availability slated for this fall, Gardner said. Business Components for Java is described as a framework for building EJB-based business components and will target both corporate development units and value-added resellers.

The firm's Burton maintains that corporate developers are impressed that Oracle builds its packaged ERP applications using its own tools. "Our core products, the database and the application solutions were all built using our tools," he said.

The Oracle tools include the Designer 2000 and Developer 2000 software engineering tools; the JDeveloper Java development tools based on technology licensed from Inprise Corp., Scotts Valley, Calif.; and the new low-end WebDB offering aimed at corporate users. Some observers say the standalone tools are competitive, but wonder whether the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

About the Author

Mike Bucken is former Editor-in-Chief of Application Development Trends magazine.