By Richard Sharpe
In February 1992 Oracle announced that it would build a value-added reseller (VAR) channel to sell its relational database. It would be difficult for Oracle to build the skills for every customer segment, Oracle said. Vars were interested in moving away from hardware sales as prices were falling fast, reported Software Markets (SM) (number 162 page 3). The Oracle database was stable enough to be handled by third parties. The previous year Oracle had launched a version of its database to run on PC’s running Unix.
By 1992 Oracle was the number one relational database package vendor with a 40% market share, according to the Gartner Group.
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Source: SM No 1247 page 7
The idea of relational databases had emerged from a paper by Ted Codd, an English mathematician working for IBM in 1970. He opened his paper with this comment:
“Future users of large data banks must be protected from having to know how the data is organized in the machine (the internal representation). A prompting service which supplies such information is not a satisfactory solution. Activities of users at terminals and most application programs should remain unaffected when the internal representation of data is changed and even when some aspects of the external representation are changed.” Read it here.
Codd went on to critique the then existing database methods and proposed the relational model. IBM researchers developed a prototype by 1973. The idea spread into Northern California’s university-industry research milieu, as Campbell-Kelly calls it. In the later 1970s Larry Ellison and a partner had a customer software company and launched a relational database in 1978.
Geoff Squire OBE was then working for CACI, a data and market research company, in London. He was given the task of building a Management Information System and wanted to use relational technology to do it. The best at the time was Oracle: but it had no UK support. Geoff contacted Ellison and signed a three-year distribution and support deal for the UK. When it proved successful, Ellison bought out the operation and Geoff with it.
Geoff recalled in his interview with AIT “I remember drawing a dog kennel for Larry Ellison on a beer mat in California, I said, “’This is our product strategy going forward, this is what we’re going to do in the UK, I think it might work for you in America, not just yet …’” Because America is very technology biased, so, they were everything, was being sold on do you do Ted Codd’s how to join, how does referential integrity work, and if we’re buying software whether referential integrity worked or not. And we [in the UK] were saying, “’How about us getting you a system working for your business in 2 months, rather than 2 years’” using COBOL and IMS or whatever the competitor were.
“So, we were selling rapid application development based on the best technology in the world, which is relational database and the dog kennel consisted of DBMS if you think of a pyramid, DBMS, tools, the case products we built ourselves, and then end-user products. And then the back of the dog kennel was support, training, and consultancy. So, we had a full-service offering in the UK, and I ran 105 seminars, I ran them all personally, which is a 4-hour lecture including industrial theatre as well, running in and out, getting 2 guys running the product live. Everything people said you shouldn’t do, never … never run a demo live, it might go wrong and upset the audience. We used to do it. They all said, “’Don’t take questions from the audience, it can destroy’” I used to take questions from any of 200 people. We used to fill the Mayfair Theatre, and that’s what built Oracle UK, it was just that.”
Dr Steve Garnett worked for Squire in the early days of Oracle UK. “Geoff Squire is one of my heroes in life. He’s one of these lovely, lovely people, very talented, again, come from a very humble background.
“I came over for the interview, which was in the pub, of all places because they were all busy in the daytime, they didn’t have time to do interviews. And so, I met them in the Orange Tree Pub in Richmond, and I met Geoff Squire, and Ian Thacker, and Chris Ellis and Mike Evans, who was also a tremendous influence. And I thought, wow, these guys are at the top of their game, these are, you know, exceptional people, they’re… not only are they exceptional in their talent but they-they like… they’ve got some fun. It’s fun as well, they’re having a couple of beers, they’re relaxing after a hard day, they’re enthused, they’re excited by the opportunity, and you could feel it, you could sense it. I said I want to be part of it. And they hired me and I was there for 12 years…
“I would agree with those statements [that Oracle was very aggressive in its sales techniques to try to crush Ingres] I think for a while, Ingres did have better technology, but I think what Larry and Oracle did, I think, without sounding arrogant, I think they had better people. I think they were driven harder than Ingres; I’ve never worked at Ingres, so, I didn’t know. But certainly, Ingres was a very fine competitor, when we came up against Ingres, we knew we had to be on our game,”
IBM had developed a query language for its rational technology: SQL. Ingres developed a better language, but Oracle stuck with SQL making it the standard. In other words, Ingres tried to use technology to win and Oracle used muscle,. Oracle won but at a price.
In 1991 and 1992 Oracle nearly went under: “the firm came close to financial and technological collapse,” says Campbell-Kelly. Sales staff had inflated the orders they said they had won and version six of Oracle was very buggy. Squire and many of the UK and the European team which he then led was called to HQ by Ellison to stabilise the ship. They did. Only for the axe to fall.
Squire: “I think Larry wanted his company back, simple as that. I think he thought there was too much English power. We had an English Head of Support, an English Head of this, an English Head of that.”
“He probably thought, hang on a moment, and he was getting a lot of pressure from his American team, and he wanted the company back.”
“If you read Ellison’s book Softwar, one of his comments is “’The stupidest thing I ever did.”’ Letting me go.”
“I had no idea it was coming, not a clue, I’d just launched all the new products in Australia, and I was too busy working, making him money, a complete surprise. And erm, yeah, and all the staff, you know, the salespeople said, “Oh, but what if he takes this company, what if he takes that…?” I mean, my settlement, they gave me half a million dollars for every company I wouldn’t work for. I promised not to work for. They gave me $6 million.”
Nick Birtles battled head to head with Oracle when he was at Ingres: “We won a lot of big government contracts against Oracle. And, most importantly, we won a, a big deal with ICL, where ICL standardised on Ingres as a database to sell, in those days it was the 2900s…When [the deal with ICL] was finally signed they paid us about $10 million upfront… The royalties that [Ingres] had got out of that software ended up being over, over a billion over 20 years” “At the end of the day Oracle outsold us. [Ingres] was too technical… and not sales and marketing driven enough. And, Larry Ellison,…was a great. What happened is, we would come out with a new development, and Larry would say the next day, ‘Oh I’ve got that,’ you know. And, he would sort of cobble up something, and let the guys in the lab cobble up something that they could demo, that was demoware, and to say, whatever big announcement we’ve got…If anybody wanted to buy it, they’d have to wait a few years, but they didn’t tell them that; they just said, ‘Buy this,’ and keep working on it, and then ‘we’ll deliver you this in another, few months.’ And of course the few months became several years. But they became very successful. I mean they’re much bigger.”
Campbell-Kelly, Martin From Airline Reservations to Sonic the Hedgehog: A history of the software industry, The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts
Software Markets newsletters, Highdon Publishing, London