Once upon a time, there was a Californian database company that boasted some solid and innovative technology, but which was ruthlessly out-marketed and out-sold by its arch-rival, Oracle.
The company made a series of technology strategy decisions that left it isolated and vulnerable in the user community, and set it on a remorseless track to suffer a series of financial losses. The upshot of all this was that it was eventually taken over by Computer Associates.
That company was in fact Ingres, and the story of its decline as an independent software company was one of the defining moments of the database industry in the mid 1990s.
But for database market watchers, it might equally be the sorry tale of the present day Informix, as the once-high flying supplier continues to take one step forward and two steps back in an attempt to regain its balance. The Informix story is a cautionary tale for all software vendors that find themselves on the fast track to success.
Eyes on a bigger prize
Born a child of the Unix revolution, the company soon expanded its reach into other areas, most notably developing parallel database technology. This had actually been initiated by the hapless Ingres, but Informix was able to punt it into the market with far greater success. With its technological reputation established, the firm began to set its sights on ever loftier goals.
Its then chief executive (CEO) Phil White was, as the company never ceased to remind everyone, named CEO of the Year on multiple occasions - a boast which, given later events, gave cause to wonder on what criteria the decision to award this mantle was made in the first place.
For White, the goal was clear: with the demise of Ingres, Informix could assume a new role as the company that would bring down market leader, Oracle. White's chosen weapon was object relational technology that he snapped up for a mere $400m from non-profit making startup, Illustra.
Illustra, meanwhile, was the brainchild of Michael Stonebraker, the original founder of Ingres and architect of many of the technology decisions that eventually backfired on it.
This is not the only area in which the stories of Ingres and Informix cross paths, however. The market was not ready for White and Stonebraker's object relational vision and the company found that its sales were starting to dry up.
This already worrying situation was made worse when it was revealed that Informix's balance sheet was peppered with some highly irregular financial practices to make it appear as though it were profitable.
By this time, the channel was stuffed with unsold product, which further inhibited any prospects for new business. White left under a cloud, as did a host of his senior management team.
Room at the top - again
In came 'Mr Clean', Bob Finocchio, who took a series of bold and brave steps to tidy up the mess left behind and put the company back on an even keel. He eventually restored it to profitability and stepped down to be replaced by Jean Yves Dexmier, Informix's former chief financial officer.
Things seemed, to all intents and purposes, to be back on track and the vendor felt it could start to build again.
But the events of the past few weeks have demonstrated that it has not quite managed to put all of its troubles behind it. Dexmier has been ousted in the face of appalling second quarter figures that have sent the share price plummeting to around $4 from a year high of $21.
His replacement - Informix' third CEO in less than a year - is Peter Gyenes, the former head of data warehousing software supplier Ardent, which Informix acquired last year.
Gyenes now faces the challenge of convincing the market that any parallels with Ingres should be abandoned and that the company has a long term future. "Clearly we are not on track in terms of where we expected to be," he says with considerable understatement
The firm's second quarter results, which were released earlier this week, saw a 30 per cent decline in licence sales for its core database software. Total revenue for the period fell to $240.5m from $250.6m in the same period last year.
The one grain of comfort is that the company did remain profitable, reporting net income of $4.9m for the quarter. But this figure is way down on last year's profits of $22m.
Inevitably Gyenes is keen to emphasise the 420 per cent increase in revenue from Informix's new ebusiness offerings, and certainly this is encouraging in terms of future prospects. But a 420 per cent increase on what was not a particularly large number to start with last year, is not exactly the most impressive counterclaim to otherwise dreadful figures.
For example, sales of the company's 'bread and butter' client-server online transaction processing database products and related services fell by 30 per cent year on year to $138m, while revenue generated from its business intelligence products dropped by 19 per cent to $31m. Total software licence sales declined in the quarter to $101.5m from $126.3m last year.
According to Gyenes, however, there is no fundamental problem with Informix's overall direction and these figures are entirely the result of "misplanning" and bad execution.
And he claims that sorting out that execution will be his main task in the days ahead. "Informix is a company that is both tremendously undervalued and tremendously unrecognised for our accomplishments and for our potential," he attested.
Where the potential lies
Certainly there is potential. The object relational technology which landed the company in such hot water in the first place is now exactly the sort of software that website designers and ebusinesses should be looking for in order to manipulate and manage unstructured data types such as video and audio.
But the fact remains that Informix has lost momentum and mindshare in some quarters. While it can talk a good ebusiness, internet-enabled strategy, it is open to debate whether Oracle has not already won the battle for customer mindshare in this space.
Informix's work with mobile phone companies on wireless databases and access to the internet is also interesting. But popular wisdom has it that Sybase has taken the lead in this sector too. Informix insists this is not the case and while it may well be true, perception is everything when it comes to an industry as dependent on marketing as the database arena.
And once the smell of failure hangs over a company, it is difficult to shake off. Ask Baan - ironically one of the partners that Informix boasted about most - or even Ingres survivors.
Of course companies can move back on track. Apple's resurrection under the leadership of Steve Jobs should give space for hope for any ailing firm, but it does take fire and vision and conviction to make it work.
During a post-results conference call with analysts, however, Gyenes singularly failed to convey any of those qualities - as a number of the Wall Street watchers pointed out. "I don't think this call is going to send everyone rushing out to buy stock," said one Paine Webber analyst, while another spoke angrily of his "frustration" with the company.
Focus on the sales force
What can be expected over the coming weeks is that Informix will pay a lot of attention to its sales force. This is likely to be restructured so that staff focus on particular product lines rather than being required to push the firm's entire portfolio.
But Informix will probably reject calls to demerge with Ardent, following Gyenes confirmation that it still intends to integrate the two companies.
While the supplier remains convinced that it took the right decision two years ago not to abandon the Informix brand, it now faces the intriguing prospect of going to market with multiple brands rather than just the Informix one.
It could be argued, of course, that after a mere week in the job, Gyenes hasn't had time to get his act together. But the message from the company is that his appointment is not meant to indicate radical change and because he has sat on the board for most of this year, somehow this is an orderly succession.
It clearly is not, however - Dexmier was simply not the right man for the job and had to go. That much at least is certain. But it is less certain whether Gyenes is the right man for the job either. Only time will tell on that score.
Nonetheless, he will have to come up with something more meaningful than: "The management has decided to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt" before anyone else is likely to do the same.
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