Oracle releases overdue Collaboration Suite update

Oracle Corp. has finally shipped the newest version of its Oracle Collaboration Suite, two years after the software’s last major update and more than a year after its intended release date.

Oracle launched its suite in 2002, positioning it as a lower-cost alternative in a market overwhelmingly dominated by Microsoft Corp.’s Exchange and IBM Corp.’s Notes/Domino.

Like its rivals, Oracle’s suite offers personal e-mail and calendar applications, as well as collaborative tools such as group file management and Web conferencing. Oracle’s new version, Oracle Collaboration Suite 10g, adds long-awaited instant-messaging functionality and an improved collaboration portal, dubbed Workspaces.

Oracle has kept Collaboration Suite’s price constant since launching the software three years ago, at US$60 per named user for a perpetual license. Components of the suite can also be purchased piecemeal, for $45 per named user. The suite is available worldwide in 25 languages.

Despite a price tag that frequently undercuts its rivals, Oracle has gained little traction in the market, thanks in part to the suite’s more limited functionality. IDC estimates the 2004 worldwide market for “integrated collaborative environments” at $1.9 billion, with Microsoft and IBM together drawing 90 percent of that spending.

IDC’s research puts Microsoft in the number-one spot, with 51.2 percent of the market share, followed by IBM with 40.1 percent. Among other vendors, only Novell Inc.’s GroupWise held a noticeable share, with 6 percent of the market. Oracle registered seventh on IDC’s list, with market share of 0.3 percent.

Gartner Inc.’s estimates of the enterprise e-mail and calendaring software market show Oracle similarly distant, in fifth place with 0.3 percent of the market to IBM and Microsoft’s collective 93 percent share.

“The greatest challenge Oracle faces is getting credibility in the messaging world,” said David Ferris, president of messaging and collaboration research firm Ferris Research Inc. “They haven’t had the level of penetration they hoped for initially. I think they’ve had vicissitudes with the product.”

Oracle executives are tight-lipped about the reasons for Collaboration Suite’s protracted development. “There’s been a lot of changes to the product, responding to user feedback during our development process,” said Rich Buchheim, Oracle’s enterprise content management strategy senior director. “I think the net result of the schedule slip is a better product.”

“This has been a big effort,” added Robert Shimp, Oracle’s vice president of technology marketing. “Achieving what we’ve achieved is a very challenging task.”

Although Oracle Collaboration Suite can be used as stand-alone software by companies with no other Oracle infrastructure, Gartner sees it appealing primarily to companies that are already Oracle customers and don’t need complex collaboration or messaging functionality.

For such users, the software’s low price tag can be very attractive.

Aerospace services and repair company Pemco Aviation Group Inc. went live on Oracle Collaboration Suite two years ago after evaluating software from IBM, Microsoft and several other vendors, according to Director of IT John Griffith. The Birmingham, Alabama, company had been using Exchange, but upgrading to the latest version would have been prohibitively expensive. Oracle’s software offered more functionality at a lower cost, Griffith said.

Griffith has been beta testing Oracle’s 10g release for several months and expects to soon begin moving components of it into production for Pemco’s 650 users. He’s particularly excited about Workspaces, which builds on content-management functionality introduced in Oracle Files, but offers a significantly enhanced, unified user interface.

“We do maintenance on airplanes, and consider each airplane a separate project,” Griffith said. “With Workspaces you don’t just have libraries for your files, you’ve got your calendar, announcements, tasks, et cetera, all around that project. That’s the piece we’re going to implement first.”

Still, in a sign of how deeply entrenched the market’s leaders are, Pemco’s employees still use Outlook as their front-end e-mail client. “When we switched we did very little training,” Griffith said. “The users don’t know Oracle is on the back-end.”