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Oracle earnings on target

The database company hits the mark with its quarterly earnings report, coming in slightly higher than estimates at 41 cents a share.

Oracle hit the mark with its quarterly earnings report today at 41 cents a share, slightly higher than Wall Street estimates.

The database company was expected to report a profit of 38 cents per share for its fiscal fourth quarter, according to a consensus estimate from First Call.

Oracle shares rose .875 in early after-hours trading on the company's unofficial settlement of 24.3125 on the Nasdaq exchange, dealers said. Nearly an hour after the bell, the stock traded at 25.5.

The Redwood Shores, California software vendor posted revenue for its database and application businesses combined of $7.1 billion for the year ended May 31.

Revenue for the database unit was $5.3 billion, a 17 percent increase from last year. The application business, including related services, grew 58 percent for the year to $1.8 billion.

Overall fourth-quarter revenue increased 24 percent from the like period last year to $2.4 billion from $1.9 billion last year, right on analysts' estimates. Profits for the period were $403 million compared to $360 million the like period last year.

For the quarter, revenue for the database unit was $1.7 billion, said Oracle's chief financial officer Jeff Henley. Applications generated around 600 million, he said.

As expected, sales in Asia for the quarter were down 17 percent reflecting the economic problems in the area.

The figures round out a rather dismal year for Oracle which saw its database revenues plateau and growth slide in its application business.

CIBC Oppenheimer this week predicted Oracle's year-end closing would not surprise anyone, with database sales remaining flat and the applications division's growth slowing down while services, driven by a demand for help with Year 2000 problems, will continue to grow.

Analyst Melissa Eisenstat at the New York financial firm said database sales across the board are "dormant as users focus their attention on making sure the data in the database is right."

She blamed the sluggish application sales on Oracle being in transition as it prepares to release Version 11 of its product at the end of the month and gets its sales staff up to speed on the new product.

"It is not going to make for a real steady year for them," Eisenstat said. "The best thing there is to say about the fourth quarter is it is the end of very tough year for them."

The tough year began in August 1997 when database sales growth began to plateau and continued throughout the year as the company missed by a long shot its prediction of 50 percent growth in the application division.

So Oracle executives put into motion a number of strategies to bolster its position, mainly in the beleaguered applications division.

The moves included CEO Larry Ellison taking over the division, revamping the sales unit so that fewer people are involved in the process, and changing focus from pushing network computing devices to pushing a network computing architecture that uses good old fashioned, hard-drive heavy PCs as thin-client devices.

Ellison stepped in to give focus to the applications division as sales of the business automation systems sagged the previous quarter. It also came about as rival PeopleSoft by some accounts overtook Oracle for the No. 2 space of the enterprise resource planning market.

Ellison will lead the division for at least a year, chief operating officer Ray Lane recently said.

Henley said it was hard predict exactly how long it would take for these changes to bear fruit. "To get the full effect it takes a couple of quarters," he said.

Since taking on his new role, Ellison has pushed the network computing architecture[NCA] as the foundation of the applications division. Oracle recently announced Oracle Applications Version 11, which is designed so that the processing power of the system is loaded on a central server that users access through Web browsers.

But the firm stopped pushing the network computer [NC], a device which has yet to take off in the eyes of corporate consumers. Network computers were the cornerstone of Oracle's technology strategy as it moved its applications toward an architecture that would make it easy for customers to deploy the thin-client devices.

Oracle and Sun Microsystems' stocks took a dive from lagging NC sales, Oracle executives from Ellison on down began to push PCs as network computers, saying that slapping a browser on the PC turns it into the thin client device.

Eisenstat said Oracle seems to be on the right track toward recovery but it will take time for the plans to take hold and reflect in its earnings statements.

Reporter Dan Goodin contributed to this report.

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