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Microsoft jumps on small database trend

Database software companies, usually focused on building bigger and faster systems, are now clamoring to provide tiny replicas of their core products for mobile and other non-PC hardware.

Database software companies, usually focused on building bigger and faster systems, are now clamoring to provide tiny replicas of their core products for mobile and other non-PC hardware.

The latest to enter the fray is software giant Microsoft which will next week announce that it will post to its Web site a free developer's version of its SQL Server 7.0 database for embedding in mobile applications.

The software, called the Microsoft Data Engine for Visual Studio 6.0, will be introduced next week at Tech Ed, a software developer-oriented conference being held in Dallas. The data engine, based on SQL Server 7.0's core technology, is intended for developers using Microsoft's Visual Studio tools to build mobile applications that link to central corporate data stores, and for designing systems that can be "upsized" to SQL Server as data stores grow.

Microsoft is the third major database provider this week to target the mobile area. On Monday, both Oracle and IBM said they will soon ship new mobile databases that allow remote workers to link to corporate networks via laptops and handheld PCs. Sybase has been shipping mobile and embedded database software for several years and is considered the market leader.

Faced with slowing sales of their full-featured database servers, and sensing the coming boom on non-PC devices with tight memory requirements, software makers are pounding the pavement hawking mobile versions of their databases to companies building networks to link increasing numbers of mobile workers to the home office.

Databases that are identical to corporate data stores embedded in mobile systems let sales personnel and other workers connect to headquarters, download the latest data for that day's business, and get in synch with the corporate database at night. For developers, the database software is an easy way to build compatible mobile and back-office systems.

And for software makers like Microsoft, providing wide distribution of free or low-priced mobile counterparts to their big database servers represents a lock-in strategy to keep SQL Server users from jumping ship to competitors' products.

According to a survey published this week by Forrester Research, Microsoft may need that lock-in strategy and wide distribution to avoid losing customers to Oracle in the coming years.

Forrester surveyed 54 companies on their online retail strategies, and found that Microsoft SQL Server is the most widely used database, outflanking Oracle by 38 percent to 23 percent. However, when asked which database they would use two years from now, 42 percent of respondents said they would chose Oracle, and only 34 percent expected to stick with SQL Server.

"A lot of people are using [SQL Server] because they know it, it's cheaper than Oracle, and SQL Server came free with other software," said Forrester analyst Frank Gillett. "But even people who use SQL Server often think Oracle is a better product."

Microsoft hopes that the free Data Engine, and a clear migration strategy from PC-based applications to SQL Server, will drive sales. While the company's Access database has been extremely popular with companies building small PC-based applications, Microsoft executives admit they have had limited success moving those users to the more expensive, and profitable, SQL Server.

"Some of the migration issues in the past between SQL Server and Jet [the data engine in Access] have kept people on Jet," said Michael Risse, a product manager at Microsoft.

The company has for several years offered its Jet database engine for embedded system development. Microsoft now claims Jet is best used for applications that need to be compatible with Microsoft Access, or fit into devices with limited system memory. The new Data Engine is included as part of Microsoft Access 2000.

Risse points out that 19 percent of respondents in the Forrester survey said they currently use Access or other PC databases for their e-commerce applications, meaning that an easy Access-to-SQL Server migration strategy could potentially increase the number of SQL Server users.

The Microsoft Data Engine isn't a full database management system, like SQL Server 7.0, but is instead just the core database engine stripped of management tools and other features. Developers can embed the software in their own applications, saving them from developing their own database software.

Microsoft said the Data Engine does include SQL Server's merge replication tools for synchronizing mobile and server-based data. Also, applications built using the Data Engine will also run with SQL Server and SQL Server Enterprise, making it easier for developers to recreate applications on multiple systems.

Microsoft already offers a full desktop version of its SQL Server 7.0 database for Windows users. Last fall, the company released SQL Server Desktop, a full version of the database for Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows NT Workstation. 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 any supported operating system.