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Oracle works quietly with Mozilla

Joint venture is kept under wraps, leading to speculation that Oracle may be planning to release an open-source product.

Oracle and the Mozilla Foundation are keeping a joint venture under wraps, leading to speculation that the database giant may by planning to release an open-source product.

The Mozilla Foundation revealed in February at the Free and Open Source Developers' European Meeting (FOSDEM) that the database giant had hired three people to work on Mozilla Lightning. This project, which aims to integrate Mozilla's calendar application, Sunbird, with its e-mail application, Thunderbird, is believed to be key to cracking the market dominance of Microsoft Outlook.

Despite repeated requests over the last two months, Oracle has been unable to provide ZDNet UK with a representative to speak about its work on the Lightning project. The Mozilla Foundation itself directed inquiries on the issue back to Oracle.

With Oracle reluctant to talk about its work with Mozilla, industry watchers have been left to speculate on whether Oracle plans to follow Novell's lead in releasing an open-source collaboration product.

Gervase Markham, a Mozilla staff member, speculated at the FOSDEM that Oracle's main motivation in working with Mozilla on the Lightning project is likely to be creating a competitor to Microsoft Outlook--and ultimately take market share away from Exchange.

"Larry feels that with small amount of investment and time he can make Bill Gates worried," Markham said at FOSDEM. "The Exchange monopoly is based on the Outlook monopoly. People pay shed-loads of cash for Exchange. If we can provide an alternative to Outlook, it will make Microsoft worried."

James Governor, an analyst at RedMonk, agreed that Oracle's work with Mozilla could help it achieve a long-term goal of success in the collaboration software market.

"Oracle has been trying to push into the collaboration space for at least five years," said Governor. "They want to succeed in the collaboration and communications area as it's a control point in the enterprise. Look at how much of Microsoft's success is predicated on Outlook. Maybe Oracle feels it could have more success with an open-source product" as opposed to a proprietary one.

Analyst firm Forrester Research recommended last year that Oracle could use the open-source route to tackle the incumbents in the collaboration market. In a report entitled "Oracle's Path to Collaboration Success," Forrester said that Oracle should consider releasing an open-source version of its collaboration application, Oracle Collaboration Suite (OCS), to enable it to crack into the market.

"Oracle will never dethrone Microsoft and IBM in the collaboration platform market by simply competing on price and features," said the report. "To truly light a competitive fire under OCS, Oracle must take some calculated risks that change the dynamic of the whole collaboration platform market."

"To really shake up the market Oracle should consider releasing a version of OCS to the open-source community. Currently a gaping hole exists in the open-source stack when it comes to enterprise messaging and collaboration."

Forrester warned that this is could be a gamble. "However, the risk is great: Oracle could cannibalize OCS revenues and lose some of its intellectual property," said the report.

It is possible that due to the risks of releasing the source code of its current product, Oracle is instead planning on offering support for both proprietary and open-source collaboration tools. Novell has already adopted this strategy and offers support for its proprietary collaboration tool GroupWise and for open-source alternatives Suse Linux Openexchange Server and Evolution.

But it is also possible that Oracle is merely working with Mozilla to ensure that OCS works better with Mozilla's e-mail software. In January 2004, Oracle and Mozilla said they were collaborating on a project to improve the integration between Oracle's business applications and Mozilla's desktop software. At the time, Oracle said it would announce the collaboration formally "in the next year."

Ingrid Marson of ZDNet UK reported from London.