There are plenty of people who have suspected it for some time, but it took Ray Lane, president and chief operating officer of Oracle, to articulate it. "Right now we're probably better known for the Network Computer than for the database or the applications," he admitted. "It's a PR problem we face."
Lane delivered his verdict at the Oracle OpenWorld conference in San Francisco earlier this month where thousands of developers and end users had gathered to hear chief executive Larry Ellison deliver (again) his, by now, legendary NC keynote address.
"We're leagues ahead of anyone else in NCs," he boasted. "The hard bit is building the server software, not the client, and that is our core competence."
Flanked by prototype NCs on all sides, Ellison went through all the usual motions - cost of ownership, PC too functionally sophisticated and so on - that have characterised virtually every public utterance he has made since he first proposed the NC concept at last year's IDC conference in Paris.
There were a few variations from the norm. Ellison was quick to point out to the audience that his slides were not composed using Microsoft PowerPoint, but with an NC-specific package using HTML - "the common heritage of all mankind," as he described it. When running through a series of live demonstrations with a variety of NC models, he lingered over a shot of graphics tumbling around the screen. "So much for the dumb terminal theory of the NC," he quipped.
But some things never change and it was soon time to take a pot-shot at Microsoft in general and its recent announcement of the NetPC in particular.
"The NetPC is a network computer," he said, dismissing Microsoft claims that the NetPC's temporary storage cache made it different. "Microsoft had said the NC was the dorkiest idea since the standalone hard disk and that it would only happen over dead bodies at Microsoft."
Ellison placed great emphasis on the forthcoming Intel-based NC, the availability of which he clearly believes will kick-start the NC revolution among the masses. But the arrival of the Intel version and the prospect of it becoming a de facto standard does raise questions about the future of the ARM chip-based product which has begun shipping.
"In terms of comfort level, people are very comfortable with Intel-based hardware. People will probably use the Intel version before they use the ARM version for some time to come," admitted Ellison. But he went on to insist that the ARM version would be more suitable in certain circumstances.
"The ARM chip offers very low power consumption, low costs and is very fast."
His presentation climaxed with the appearance on stage of a cuddly puppy - over which Ellison duly billed and cooed. The puppy is the symbol of Thomson Consumer Electronics RCA. RCA, the biggest TV manufacturer in the US, has struck a deal with Oracle's Network Computer Inc to provide the technology for NCs, which will sell for around $300 (u187).
Oracle presented the deal as a major vote of confidence in the NC concept, making it "an essential part of every entertainment centre", according to Jerry Baker, chief executive of Network Computer Inc. RCA however appears to be hedging its bets somewhat: as part of a separate deal with Compaq, RCA will also release a TV/PC early next year.
There were some signs of caution on Ellison's part as well, perhaps mindful of the concerns expressed by Lane about the amount of attention Oracle's role in kick-starting the NC bandwagon. "NCs are an important part of our strategy," he told delegates, "but they may not be the most important part."
So what are the other important parts? The fabled Oracle 8 object-oriented database perhaps? Not at this conference it wasn't. Despite suggestions from Oracle executives a couple of months ago that Oracle 8 would feature heavily at the show, in the event it was at best a bit-part player and kept well away from centre stage.
Although the product has entered a limited beta testing phase, it is likely to be the middle of next year before it gets anywhere near a full release. Jerry Held, Oracle senior vice president of Server Technologies, said: "Unlike some of our competitors who will put out their products after only a short beta, Oracle is committed to extensive testing. This will continue through the first half of 1997."
That gives the company's rivals a head start in a race which Oracle started over four years ago when Ellison took his staff by surprise and announced an object-oriented Oracle on stage at the European Oracle User Conference.
Since then, Computer Associates has begun selling Jasmine, a fully object-oriented product, while Informix is set to release its object-relational Universal Server by the end of the year.
There is clearly work to be done to accommodate the NC paradigm into the Oracle 8 strategy, but with sales of Oracle 7.x holding up, the company appears unconcerned about the non-delivery of Oracle 8. The existing product has all the functionality Informix Universal Server is only now introducing, insist the Oracle product managers.
Elsewhere the company's European operation came under fire for underperformance, although not as aggressively as last year when Lane lambasted the UK and French subsidiaries for dragging down overall corporate performance. This was one of the reasons for imposing a new global structure on the company's divisions worldwide.
"Europe did grow quite a bit slower than other regions. We feel we can do better," admitted Jeff Henley, Oracle's chief financial officer. "The new global strategy has had a bigger impact there than elsewhere because there were more changes to make."
The UK seems to have cleaned up its act, but France remain a problem.
"The UK fell down before France, so it is picking up first," explained Henley. "The UK is our biggest subsidiary, so as it gets better it will help the overall European figures."
Pier Carlo Falotti, the recently appointed senior vice president for Europe Middle East and Africa, commented: "The UK is improving, the Germans are searching for themselves, France is very poor for business and the Italians - what can I say about Italy?"
He argued that one of the benefits of the new global thinking was that all national Oracle operations would now be able to have access to similar promotional, sales and marketing resources. "The situation has been that if you were in the UK, you had a lot of resource," he explained. "But if you were in Italy, where we only started three years ago, then you had a lot less. We have to use our resources better to get to customers."
Overall Falotti remains convinced that Oracle can make the transition from what Lane once famously dismissed as "national fiefdoms" to a global structure, but it seems likely to be a lengthy process. "The amount of work to do is greater than I thought," he admitted, but added that he's not going to be rushed. "Before we jump out of the window, let's find out what floor we're on and whether there is water underneath."
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