Oracle Gears Up for Wireless Challenge

SAN FRANCISCO (03/27/2000) - Oracle Mobile.com, a subsidiary of Oracle Corp. that was spun off from the database giant in February, is gearing up for an assault on the wireless Internet market.

The company began its efforts last month with the launch of a free wireless portal where consumers can access a range of content using Web phones and other wireless devices. Oracle Mobile will also target carriers, content providers, and eventually corporations with services aimed at helping them make their content and applications accessible over the airwaves, said Denise Lahey, Oracle Mobile's chief executive officer.

"It's all about providing access to data where you need it and when you need it; not just when you're sitting in front of a PC," Lahey said in an interview last week.

For its consumer service, the company formed partnerships with the likes of Amazon.com Inc., ETrade Group Inc. and MapQuest.com Inc. to provide information such as news and restaurant reviews, as well as stock trading and auction services. The service can be accessed from about 2 million Web-enabled phones in use in the U.S. today. A limited set of "notification only" services are also available on wireless devices such as the Palm VII and pagers.

Oracle Mobile will go head-to-head with Yahoo Inc., America Online Inc. and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN, which are all retooling their content for an expected boom in the number of mobile Internet users. The biggest challenge for a division of Oracle, which is known for its business software, is likely to be positioning itself as a compelling brand for consumers.

"When you think of news and stock quotes and movie listings, it's not like Oracle pops into your mind as the brand of choice," said Mark Zohar, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "I can't see many users bookmarking Oracle Mobile on their mobile phones."

Oracle Mobile's Lahey disagreed. She pointed to the company's strong partner line-up, which also includes Travelocity.com Inc., the Weather Channel and United Parcel Service (UPS), and said Oracle Mobile knows the kind of "cool" applications that consumers want. Over the weekend, for example, it added voice capabilities to Hollywood.com Inc.'s movie listing service using technology from Motorola Inc.'s MIX (Mobile Internet Exchange) platform, she said.

"We'll be very quickly voice-enabling all of our services over the next few months," Lahey said. This should allow users to navigate sites more easily without having to fiddle with the keypads on their phones.

The portal effort currently is focused on the U.S., but Oracle Mobile plans to expand its service to Europe over the next six months through partnerships with content providers in the region. Developing countries that lack a strong wireline infrastructure also provide fertile ground for wireless services, Lahey said. The company hopes to make money through advertising deals and by taking a cut from transactions made through its service.

Oracle Mobile isn't restricting its efforts to consumers. The company also offers consulting, software and hosting services to allow carriers, content providers and eventually corporations to make their applications and content available wirelessly. At the heart of the offering is Oracle Portal-to-Go, a server product that was developed under Lahey's leadership at Oracle before Oracle Mobile was formed.

Portal-to-Go includes software that extracts data from applications and databases and converts it into XML (extensible markup language). Using style sheets, the XML data is converted once more, on the fly, into a format that allows it to be read by whatever type of device happens to be accessing the system.

The wireless portal concept offers compelling advantages for corporations, according to Lahey. Workers will become more mobile and more efficient if they have access on the move to applications such as e-mail and calendars, and to information such as sales inventories, customer profiles and other information relevant to their jobs, she said.

Oracle Mobile plans to provide every aspect of the service. It will consult with customers to decide which applications to make wireless, write the specifications for how the data will appear on devices, build the system, and, if necessary, host it on Oracle's servers. The service for carriers and content providers is available now, although Lahey couldn't identify any customers yet.

After about 12 months, the company will begin to target businesses, which eventually will provide the biggest source of income for Oracle Mobile, Lahey predicted.

"Enterprise customers are a little bit further behind in terms of their interest in the wireless space and their understanding of it; there's an education process that needs to take place," she said. Content providers, on the other hand, are already "banging down the door," she claimed. The company will succeed, she said, in part because its parent company, through its database business, already has relationships with more than 90 percent of Internet companies.

Forrester's Zohar said Oracle Mobile stands more chance of succeeding with businesses than it does in the consumer market. It will have to compete with Microsoft Corp., IBM Corp. and a slew of other firms scurrying to position themselves in the same market, but Oracle's reputation for good software could help it make the leap into wireless, Zohar said.

"Wireless has been a tough space to crack, and I think there is room in there for Oracle," he said.

At the same time, the analyst was critical of Oracle Mobile's decision to start a consumer site, which will compete with the very same businesses that the company hopes to sell services to, he noted. Zohar also criticized the company for trying to provide every aspect of the service itself.

"I think (Oracle Chairman and CEO) Larry Ellison is trying to declare himself king of the wireless hill, and in their grandiose way, they're trying to do everything themselves," Zohar said. "I'm not convinced that's the best way."

Oracle's Lahey pointed to technology partnerships with Motorola, Sun Microsystems Inc. and others. Oracle Mobile may also join up with firms such as Exodus Communications Inc. to help with the hosting services, she said.

The Oracle spin-off sees a synergy between its consumer portal and its services for businesses. Workers are consumers too, and want access to information such as stock quotes and driving directions as well as to their corporate data, Lahey said. Oracle Mobile will give firms the option of merging their corporate portals with Oracle's consumer service, providing workers with a complete solution, she said.

Oracle Mobile currently has only about 30 employees, she said, but it hopes to grow to more than 100 by the end of the year. The company is looking for outside investors, but will always be majority-owned by Oracle, Lahey said.

Based in Redwood Shores, California, Oracle Mobile can be reached at +1-650-506-7000 or on the Web at http://www.oraclemobile.com/.

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