It hasn?t been a good week for Phil White. Actually it hasn?t been a good year for the man who for the last eight years succesfully led relational database company Informix to ever greater success, only to see it all collapse in the space of one quarter.
Losses of $140.1 million, fury from investors on Wall Street and loss of confidence in an intensely competitive market have taken their toll. This week as 6,000 customers gathered in San Francisco for the company?s annual user jamboree, White made the ultimate sacrifice and stepped aside in favour of a new chief executive who will be tasked with restoring Informix fortunes.
While former 3Com president Robert Finocchio settled into the Informix hot seat this week,White was in philosophical mood as he contemplated his new role as chairman of the board. ?I?m in the same vein as [Oracle chief executive] Larry Ellison was in 1991 [when Oracle plunged into the red],? he said. ?He brought in a good man in Ray Lane and a good chief financial officer in Jeff Henley and they drove the hell out of the business. Bob and a new chief financial officer will run our business and I?ll play a role,? he said. ?As long as I can be a great asset to the company I?ll stay around.?
White?s performance this week was a stark contrast to his starring role at last year?s user conference in Chicago. At that time, the company was riding high and preparing to release its object relational Universal Server database, a product which company executives claimed would revolutionise the market and give Informix a near unassailable technology lead over Oracle. White was confident and smooth as he spoke to his customers of the great future that awaited them.
One year on and the Universal Server centric strategy is, if not quite in ruins, certainly extremely battered and bruised. The company?s sales force focused almost exclusively on pushing the new database following its release in December last year at the expense of its traditional relational database product line. It was a disasterous policy: the problem with having a technology that is years ahead of its time - as Universal Server undoubtedly is - is that it?s likely to take years before anyone?s ready to buy into it.
At last year?s conference, the words ?universal server? dripped from the lips of every senior Informix executive at every possible opportunity. This year it was forty-six minutes into White?s conference opening keynote address before the database was even mentioned. ?Innovation doesn?t always mean success,? he acknowledged. ?Our focus on innovation [with Universal Server] put us ahead of the needs of the market. We tried to create a new market and got part of the way there.?
So this year?s conference keynote was very different to that of the previous year. Gone were the presumptive claims to be heir apparent to Oracle; in was a reborn humility and a pledge to get back to basics while waiting for the market to catch up with its pioneering technology. White himself looked tired and strained and failed to ignote a spark in an audience which could be forgiven for looking for reasons to believe. As White later acknowledged, the current number one question asked by customers relates not to technological expertise, but to whether the company is actually going to be around.
What the audience got was a new found devotion to NT. An ambitious plan to capture 15% of the enterprise NT database market by the end of next year was this year?s main strategic announcement as the company sets out to steal business away from Microsoft?s SQL Server (see separate story). White clearly thinks this should be a no-brainer issue for customers. ?SQL Server is based on Sybase 4.2 - enough said!? he mocked with a suggestion of the bravado of former years.
Universal Server itself will not be available on NT until the end of this year, but that?s perhaps the least of that product?s problems. A briefing document prepared for senior Informix executives prior to this week?s conference provides some interesting insights into some of the difficult issues surrounding the new database and how the corporate party line has evolved to embrace them.
For example, a frequently levelled criticism from rivals such as Oracle is that Universal Server was rushed out the door in December in order to meet a commitment from White that the company could merge its existing relational technology with advanced object technology acquired from Illustra Software by a self-imposed year-end deadline. The executive briefing paper acknowledges this criticism and makes no attempt to deny that ?it?s widely understood that the Universal Server product that Informix shipped at the end of 1996 was nothing more than rough beta code.?
The document also addresses the issue of why Informix has - according to its own claims - restricted the availability of Universal Server, an explanation which reveals a policy reversal. In the first half of this year, the firm defined what it calls ?minimum training,consulting and support criteria to ensure success? of the new database. But that success has proved elusive, causing the company to rethink this stategy. The briefing document notes: ?Based on early feedback, we are in the process of phasing out these mandatory requirements?.we anticipate that these restrictions will be completely removed in the next few months.?
Most damning of all however is the section concerning the status of Datablades availability. Datablades are software modules which are plugged into Universal Server to provide additional, highly specialised functionality and the ability to handle rich data types. The intention is that an entire third party industry of Datablade developers should grow up around Universal Server.
When Universal Server was launched in December, Informix executives claimed there were already 29 available blades with a further 50 in development and a 1997 year end target of 200. But the briefing document reveals that as of July 1997 there are actually only 20 blades available - apparently nine less than there were in December! ?Our intial estimates were based on the Datablade modules we felt we needed to meet the demands of our core markets? is the official party line from Informix. But this does little to conceal the fact that that Datablade production line has clearly not begun to roll and a third party industry is still a pipedream.
What is the solution? White argued this week that one of the things that had gone wrong was the fact that Informix had effectively been preaching Universal Server?s rich contentmanagement gospel on its own. As a result the company has enlisted the support of Intel to back its enterprise ambitions.The two companies will work together to scale Informix? databases on NT running on Intel architectures, including Universal Server. ?We didn?t change the industry, but we and Intel will together,? predicted White.
But it?s all a somewhat low key end to White?s reign at Informix and one which struck some observers last week as somewhat unfair.White has undoubtedly made serious errors of judgement of late, most notably by becoming carried away with the dubious allure of object relational technology, and he has paid the price of ultimate responsibility. But there are other guilty men at Informix who should shoulder some of the the blame for the company?s downturn in fortunes.
It was product development vice president Mike Saranga who decided that the company would no longer participate in TPC benchmarks, a policy which caused the company to drop out of the line of vision of many potential customers and which has now been reversed. It was chief technology officer Michael Stonebraker who turned the launch of Universal Server into a marketing and PR nightmare with a series of ill-considered remarks that cast doubt on whether it was even safe to use the database. And only the next few months will determine whether worldwide sales director Ken Coulter?s controversial Superstore sales strategy is a credible option. The scheme - to provide piloting centres for potential customers - has already been scaled back significantly from its original roll-out, while kitting out the centres led to Infomrix entering bartering deals which simply fuelled the company?s losses.
When the history of the database market is written, it will be seen that White made Informix into a great power in the industry. Prior to his coming on board, Informix was a little known company with a low end database called SE and a long-forgotten spreadsheet called Wingz. White turned it into the seventh biggest software company in the world and one which could be justifiably mentioned in the same breath as Oracle.
It remains to be seen if White will be content with his new role as chairman. One senior Informix executive said this week that he hoped that his former CEO could find a role since his experience would be invalable to Finocchio, who has no experience of the database sector.
But it is difficult to shake off memories of Sybase founder and chief executive Mark Hoffman,who was ?chairman-ed? off in favour of a new, Wall Street friendly CEO when that company hit trouble last year. Within weeks, Hoffman was pursuing other interests and has now severed his links with Sybase. No-one at the Informix User Conference this week was taking any bets that White will be around for the 1998 show .
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