Is Oracle Eyeing Inprise?

Inprise Corp. -- formerly known as Borland -- recently announced that it signed a worldwide, multimillion dollar licensing agreement with database-leader Oracle. Oracle has chosen Inprise’s VisiBroker as its main CORBA object request broker. VisiBroker is integrated with Oracle 8i and Oracle Application Server, among others. While the press release says that "Inprise puts the ‘i’ in Oracle 8I," it is interesting to consider whether Oracle might be "i"-ing Inprise as a potential acquisition.

Inprise has had one of the most tumultuous rides of any Windows shrink-wrap producer. In the early nineties, Inprise had almost as wide a product set as Microsoft, lacking only an operating system. Bill Gates and Inprise’s then-CEO Phillipe Kahn were rivals of the highest order. But lack of OS control hurt Inprise badly. While Microsoft’s new releases would take advantage of every new aspect of Windows, Inprise was forced to play catch-up. The coup de grâce came when Microsoft declared Microsoft Foundation Class Library (MFC) as the "one true way" to program Windows applications and simultaneously refused to license MFC to Inprise. Inprise, once a leader in productivity products and development tools, watched their flagship C++ IDE become an also-ran.

But Inprise wasn’t finished. When they introduced Delphi, a breakthrough client/server product, in the mid-90s, Inprise’s stock and reputation soared. For about a one-year period, they had the best-selling development tool in history. But Microsoft doesn’t like to lose. While it couldn’t copy Delphi’s elegant architecture, Microsoft ensured that Visual Basic had a match for every Delphi feature. The review kit for VB 5.0 ignored other players in the client/server market, such as PowerSoft and Symantec, and concentrated on besting Delphi. Between Microsoft and the coming of Java -- where Inprise arrived late -- Inprise fell right back to the pre-Delphi doldrums.

But like Rocky Balboa, this fighter wouldn’t stay down. Inprise sold off its unprofitable productivity applications and concentrated on its strong development tools. Two successful revisions of the JBuilder Java IDE, improvements to the Delphi-based C++ Builder, and the strategic acquisition of cross-platform CORBA vendor Visigenics has given the company the tools to offer a complete enterprise solution.

Renaming Borland to Inprise, however, has not managed to restore the clout the company once had. With the developer market tight and Internet stocks up, Inprise’s stagnant stock price is making it difficult to attract top talent. On each sales call, Inprise likely faces questions about its longevity, despite hundreds of millions in revenue. Enter Oracle.

Oracle has seemingly never had problems making money. Oracle’s product set is fairly small and they don’t actually control an operating system. It does, however, control a platform of sorts, as Oracle adds a homogenous layer that runs on top of a many operating systems. In fact, Oracle’s recent Raw Iron initiative attempts to prove that an OS is unnecessary baggage.

Despite Oracle’s penchant for profitability, it has had a few execution problems. A number of its initiatives, such as the Network Computer, have managed to cause an industry stir without actually producing a viable product. And Oracle, for some reason, can’t seem to create a development tool that programmers enjoy using. With the release of Microsoft’s SQL Server 7, Oracle can’t afford to continue its history of "entice but don’t deliver." And executing products is what Inprise is all about.

In my eyes, these companies are nearly perfect compliments, with little overlap. An Oracle acquisition would immediately eliminate questions about Inprise’s longevity, freeing IT shops to choose development products on merit. At the same time, Oracle would gain control of the best enterprise tool set available. They would also be able to offer a complete COM and CORBA solution -- something Microsoft is never likely to offer. Plus, Oracle’s recent stock price recovery gives it three times the purchase power it had at this time last year.

Finally, an Oracle acquisition of Inprise would once again give Inprise a flamboyant leader. Larry Ellison, one of the industry’s remaining CEOs with the courage to occasionally thumb his nose at Redmond, could help restore the confidence that this once high-flying company needs. --Eric Binary Anderson is a development manager at PeopleSoft's PeopleTools division (Pleasanton, Calif.) and has his own consulting business, Binary Solutions. Contact him at ebinary@yahoo.com.