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Oracle wants to be a household name

The debut of the NC also has served as the company's first step towards making a household name of itself.

Oracle's (ORCL) Network Computing Architecture rollout yesterday also served as a coming-out party for the company, the first step in a quest to establish Oracle as a household name.

It's not as if the company--which topped $5.7 billion in revenue in fiscal 1997--is invisible. Oracle can boast a 97 percent penetration rate among Fortune 100 companies, and 90 percent with Fortune 500 firms.

But, largely because of the nature of its core products--back-end server software--few executives outside of the IS department know the company's name. And among consumers, where the company hopes to strike it rich with its Network Computer scheme, Oracle is nearly unknown.

Turning Oracle into a household name will be the biggest challenge yet for the software maker's slick marketing machine, said analysts.

"They are a database software company and their distribution channels are not geared to serving a consumer market," said Judy Davis, principal consultant with DataBase Associates International. "But Oracle is certainly big enough, and with enough exposure, could get the consumer market. The thing is, they don't want to be a database company, they want to be a solutions company--like IBM--where they supply all of the pieces."

Yesterday's soiree at Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall was the shove-off of a marketing push to establish Oracle's new public persona. Like Intel and Microsoft, now as well-known among soccer moms and schoolchildren as Coca-Cola and McDonalds, Oracle will take to the television airwaves with a marketing campaign intended to raise its profile.

Oracle president Ray Lane said the new advertising campaign will kick off in September with ads that will run during weekend sports events, coupled with 15-second spots featuring CEO Larry Ellison.

Why the sudden urge for fame, after 20 years of nearly uninterrupted profits from a low-profile core business?

For starters, growth rates for Oracle's core business--database server software--will begin begin to stagnate in the next few years as the market for new sales becomes saturated. Nearly every company that will invest in a new relational database management system has already done so, say industry analysts. That means Oracle needs to mine new revenue streams outside of its upgrades and beyond its cushy IS roots.

"Oracle is fortunate in that they have an enviable installed base among the Fortune 1,000. But they are also looking to the next level and where their future growth will be coming from," said Andrew Roskill, who tracks Oracle for Smith Barney.

The Network Computing Architecture scheme is designed to do just that, by driving server software sales into new markets. To make NCA a commercial success, however, Oracle needs to persuade Internet service providers and cable television companies that its software is the best for doling out Net services and content. That means Oracle is headed for a head-on collision with better known arch-rival Microsoft.

"One of the obvious reasons behind the NC push is that Microsoft is becoming more of a force in the enterprise, in Oracle's cash-cow business. So Oracle has to go on the offensive and try to capture some of Microsoft's core front-end business," said Roskill.

Davis, meanwhile, noted: "They want to get a foothold on the front end, to stop Microsoft from getting a hold on the back end."

Oracle has proven its ability to create a media buzz with the NC. But selling the NC scheme to the consumer market, through ISPs and NC makers, could be a stretch even for Oracle.

Oracle's Lane said he has promoted an executive, Karen White, to make sure the marketing message gets out to both markets. White will serve as senior vice president for global marketing in addition to her existing duties heading up Oracle's strategic marketing and business development.

Analysts point out that companies bigger, richer, and more experienced than Oracle have failed in the past to span both markets. "It takes two completely different animals to do consumer and IS-type marketing. The consumer market is totally different" than Oracle's traditional market, said Mitch Kramer, an analyst with the Patricia Seybold Group.

"IBM has struggled with this. They seem to be getting better, but they had to go out and hire people to get the job done. I don't think Oracle has bred that skill from within," Kramer added.