Applications

Are Oracle business apps at a crossroads?

The software maker is likely to face tough questions about its business applications unit this week, as it unveils products and plans at its AppsWorld conference.

Oracle is expected to talk up new features and delivery options at its annual AppsWorld conference this week, but it is also likely to face tough questions about the direction of its business applications unit.

The uncertainty stems from the fact that Oracle's chances of acquiring PeopleSoft, its rival in that market, appear increasingly remote. In addition, Oracle slipped from second to third place in business applications last year, after PeopleSoft merged with No. 4 player, J.D. Edwards.

So, if PeopleSoft proves elusive, will Oracle lose interest in business applications, which, despite being the software maker's second-biggest money-spinner, contributes just a fraction of the company's overall $2.8 billion-a-year revenue?

"I think that's a fundamental question for them," said Peter Coleman, a securities analyst at SoundView Technology Group. "Do they follow more of an IBM strategy and say, 'We don't want to be in applications, but we want to do everything else,' or do they continue to try to do both?"

Coleman expects Oracle to use the San Diego AppsWorld conference, where it will host an analyst day, to further explain its backup plan for an Oracle sans PeopleSoft. He's unlikely to be alone in expecting the bid to fall through, particularly since The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that antitrust regulators appear ready to block the takeover.

The deal is riding on a final decision from the U.S. Department of Justice, which Oracle expects sometime in March. Despite the uncertainties, Oracle has not given up its chase for PeopleSoft.

On Friday, Oracle named an opposing slate of directors to fill seats on PeopleSoft's board. Oracle hopes to gain control over the board in order overturn PeopleSoft's antitakeover measure, also known as a poison pill. Half the directors of PeopleSoft's eight-member board are up for re-election this spring at the company's shareholder meeting.

The business applications conference should also see Oracle discuss a number of new products and programs. It plans to introduce new software capabilities that support radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, an Oracle representative said.

RFID, which has been billed as a next-generation bar code system, is being adopted by the Pentagon and by major corporations, including Wal-Mart Stores and Procter & Gamble. With the release, Oracle follows rival SAP, Sun Microsystems and Microsoft, which are among the several leading technology companies to have launched RFID initiatives over the past year.

The software maker is also set to unveil features and pricing options for the application hosting services offered through its Oracle Outsourcing unit, the representative said. Under the program, customers license software as they normally would but let Oracle set up, house and maintain the software for them, as well as provide the hardware for 3 percent to 5 percent of the cost of the software per month.

The cost of the service is roughly half of what a company would pay staff, database administrators and consultants to maintain the applications on their own, according to Oracle.

Application hosting has become popular again, after the concept lost favor during the dot-com bust. Much of the buzz has to do with the anticipated initial public offering of Salesforce.com, one of the most successful start-up survivors in the market.

Analysts said software designed to help companies comply with financial reporting rules laid down by the new Sarbanes-Oxley Act will also be a key theme at AppsWorld this year.