Informix hits rock bottom

For years, Informix has been hurling barbs at its main competitor Oracle. Now, it seems, Oracle might have the last word.

Mike Ricciuti Staff writer, CNET News
Mike Ricciuti joined CNET in 1996. He is now CNET News' Boston-based executive editor and east coast bureau chief, serving as department editor for business technology and software covered by CNET News, Reviews, and Download.com. E-mail Mike.
Mike Ricciuti
4 min read
On the side of Route 101, just a few hundred feet from database software maker Oracle's front door, is a billboard that Informix Software has for years used as a platform for hurling barbs and mild insults at the database software behemoth. Now Oracle might have the last word.

The sputtering company, an up-and-coming threat to database software market leader Oracle just a few short months ago, has seen its revenues tumble, its accounting practices challenged, and its stock price plummet in recent weeks.

All of this has investors and analysts are wondering: When will the bad news stop?

The question has led to a top-to-bottom revamping of the company's management team, as well as a lot of deep thought by the company's board and incoming CEO Robert Finocchio, on what strategy the Menlo Park, California-based company should tackle next.

Analysts agree that Informix (IFMX) has decent technology and a top-notch customer list. But management needs to get its act together, and it needs to do it soon.

For example, today's announcement that Informix has received a $40 million equity investment from Fletcher International represents news both good and bad. Although money is never a bad thing, the company said the infusion was needed to help get the company "back on track toward profitability." (See related story)

"They need to articulate and execute a strategy that is cohesive and timely. Once they come up with a strategy, it will still be two or three quarters before they can execute it," said Randal Chin, an analyst with Alex. Brown.

"It's going to be a tough road back to recovery. They have good technology, but they have executed very badly," Chin said.

The company's main downfall is an unwavering belief that if Informix could offer cutting-edge technology, in the form of an object-relational database, that users would come. In droves.

Object-relational databases can store and manage new multimedia data, such as audio and video clips, along with standard row-and-column text and numbers that relational databases have always handled. Additionally, object-relational systems can manage Java components and other software building blocks that standard relational systems are not designed to recognize. That's one reason why proponents say O-R databases are much better suited to handling Web data than older technology.

The problem is few users really see a need for the technology or even understand what it can do for them.

"They assumed there would be demand [for Universal Server] without finding out what the end-user wanted," said Brian Eisenbarth, an analyst with Collins & Company. "Object technology can be very powerful, but the user has to be educated in what it can do for them," he said.

The market in time may prove Informix, and former CEO Phil White, to be visionaries. Object-relational databases do have several advantages over relational systems, such as the ability to handle multimedia information without breaking a sweat.

That fact has not been lost on Oracle, which has added some object support to its freshly shipped Oracle 8 relational database server. Oracle is "developing things that Informix was working on six to nine months ago," said Eisenbarth.

And both Microsoft and Sybase--which is rebuilding after its own technological stumble and financial setback--are dipping their toes into the object-relational pond.

But the fact remains that database buyers are notorious for their conservatism, and they just weren't ready to buy. "Informix emphasized the wrong product at the wrong time," said Chin.

Now management needs to reevaluate its place in the market and assure customers that it can survive, before more sales walk away. "It's a question of marketing now, to make sure the public knows their products are valuable and know what they have to provide," said Eisenbarth.

Finocchio, who earned a reputation for hard-nosed management at networking equipment maker 3Com, is seen by many analysts as the right man at the right time for Informix. "Finocchio comes from outside of the software industry. Right now for Informix that could be a good thing, since he could provide a fresh perspective," said James Pickrel, an analyst with Hambrecht & Quist.

But those conservative database buyers aren't easily assuaged. "One thing about this industry is that buyers are very sensitive to a company's problems, because a database is a long-term commitment. A company says, if we're going to spend $200,000 on a database system, we're going to go with the best. Sybase and Informix did damage to their reputations and it takes a long time to recover," said Eisenbarth. "Oracle has taken advantage of that situation."