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Mobile database niche takes off

Faced with a saturating market for Unix-based software, both Sybase and Oracle are pounding the pavement hawking mobile versions of their databases.

Database software makers Sybase (SYBS) and Oracle may have found one answer to slumping database server sales. The bad news?

Microsoft (MSFT) is headed down the same road.

Faced with a saturating market for Unix-based software, the cash cow which has propelled database sales in the past, both Sybase and Oracle are pounding the pavement hawking mobile versions of their databases--and a dose of consulting--to companies building networks to link increasing numbers of mobile workers to the home office.

The companies are supplying technology that lets users connect to headquarters, download the latest data for that day's business, and get in synch with the corporate database at night.

Sybase said today that it has signed a deal with tax preparation giant H&R Block to supply mobile database software and connectivity tools for building a computing infrastructure that will allow the company to link 4,500 field offices to its corporate headquarters for daily information updates.

The new system, built with help from Sybase's professional services organization, will roll out next year, and will let Block collect, exchange, and analyze data from its tax offices on a daily basis. No terms of the deal were announced.

Sybase is also teaming with specialty software makers to embed Adaptive Server Anywhere into packaged applications. Earlier this month, the company said it had signed a deal with E-Z Data, a maker of sales force automation applications, to embed Adaptive Server Anywhere in E-Z Data's Client Data System, an information management tool.

Analysts give Sybase high marks for its mobile technology. "Right now, all of the action is on the mobile side, and Sybase is sort of an embodiment of where database companies see the market going," said Mitch Kramer, an analyst with the Patricia Seybold Group. "[Adaptive Server Anywhere] may be the highlight of Sybase's product lineup."

Oracle is attempting to cash in on the burgeoning market for personal digital assistants and handheld computers with its Oracle Lite database. The company earlier this month disclosed plans to build a version of Oracle Lite for Microsoft's Windows CE handheld operating system. The company already announced plans to deliver by summer versions of Oracle Lite for Palm Computing and Psion handhelds.

Sybase is also building a Windows CE version of Adaptive Server Anywhere.

The trend toward building mobile systems is not new. The technology has existed for several years. But replication tools, which shuttle copies of data between a central database and multiple copies of the database, are now easier to use and are more reliable, analysts said.

Also, database software specially designed for mobile use, such as Sybase's Adaptive Server Anywhere and Oracle's Oracle Lite, are built to be installed in remote offices, and typically don't need any IS management. That's leading more companies to seek out technology for building mobile systems.

The added sales emphasis by database software companies to push mobile software isn't just coincidence. Both Sybase and Oracle are hoping to make up for flattening sales of high-margin Unix software. Both companies are also investing heavily in Java technology and Windows NT development and planning on building their professional services organizations.

According to Dataquest, sales of UNIX relational database products posted a slight decline in 1997, while sales on Windows NT grew 91 percent.

The bad news for both Sybase and Oracle is that Microsoft also plans to enter the mobile database market.

The company's SQL Server 7.0 database, due to ship in the second half of the year, will also be available in a mobile computing-enabled version with better replication abilities than current offerings.

The all-new Windows 9.x desktop version of the database will be aimed at mobile and disconnected users. The small-footprint version of the database will be identical to the Windows NT-based SQL Server, allowing developers to write applications to one API and run them on either platform, company executives said.

Microsoft will revamp SQL Server's current replication tools to include support for multimaster replication, also known as symmetric replication, which allows two sites to maintain and update separate copies of the same database while the replication software keeps both copies in sync. Also new will be support for disconnected users, so mobile users on laptops can receive database updates on the road via a dial-up connection.