Oracle's annual OpenWorld extravaganza was a disappointment for those expecting extensive updates on its next-generation Fusion applications, but the company did reveal a few details about the first three Fusion applications that will hit the market, and are expected to be released in the first half of 2008.
The first of the new breed of Fusion applications will comprise three salesforce automation applications: Sales Prospector, Sales Reference, and Sales Tools. Sales Prospector is the most interesting of the three and is a targeted data mining application. Its role is to mine an organisation's customer data to identify what types of company are actually making purchases, use the data to build a profile for likely buyers, and make suggestions to sales reps regarding what should be sold to whom. It is essentially a recommendation engine, similar to those used by online retailers such as Amazon, but built for the needs of sales reps.
The second application, Sales Reference, also mines customer data with the objective of identifying suitable customers that could be cultivated as reference sites to help future sales.
The third application differs from the other two in that it has more in common with social networking conventions than embedded BI. Sales Tools enables organisations to create a database of sales presentations. Rather than fostering a hierarchical corporate-led repository, Tools is based around the concept of a social network of sales people and enables sales reps themselves to provide and rate the presentations.
According to Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, the trio is not just a replacement for what he described as existing first-generation salesforce automation applications, they are second-generation offerings. Where first-generation apps were geared toward the needs of management in that they provided information required by sales managers as opposed to sales staff, he said second-generation tools are built for sales reps and are designed to provide the information they need to help them sell.
The observation that sales tools are mostly built for managers is not new and Ellison is not the first to highlight the issue.
Many failed CRM projects can be partially attributed to false expectations. Oracle's solution is to shift the emphasis from SFA as a forecasting tool, to SFA as a sales-support tool by identifying the tasks and information sales reps need to carry out their function.
At the core of this approach is the idea of function-specific embedded BI. Oracle is taking the decision-support characteristics of BI and applying them in an operational area, resulting in sales-support offerings.
In this it is following a developing trend of embedding BI into operational business applications. Vendors including SAP, Microsoft, Salesforce.com, and RightNow are all moving in this direction.
Microsoft is closest to the Oracle approach in that it is embedding analytics into the infrastructure as a means of making it available to the applications.
However, trend-following does not detract from the value of what Oracle is planning. Business intelligence and analytics software have lived on the outskirts of business applications for too long because of the difficulty of conveying the material benefits of often abstract ideas, plus the applications' innate complexity due to their use of statistical and mathematical techniques which has made them inaccessible to non-specialist users. Embedding BI and analytics into task-specific operational applications overcomes these issues.
The move to embrace consumer trends, namely the social networking mode of operation, is slightly ahead of the curve, although by the time the Tools application is released it may have become the norm in enterprise business applications.
Fusion application characteristics
The style of functionality helps differentiate first-generation and second-generation SFA applications in Oracle's eyes, but Ellison said there are more fundamental ways of identifying a Fusion application.
There will be three characteristics: they will be built on standards-based middleware; be service-enabled so they can be integrated into a SOA; and they will be available under the SaaS model. Oracle intends every application it releases next year to be a Fusion application.
In practice, this means all new applications will be built on Fusion Middleware and eventually Fusion Middleware will provide the migration path to Fusion Applications. New versions of existing applications (E-Business Suite, PeopleSoft, JD Edwards, and Siebel) will gradually make use of more Fusion Middleware components such as BI, enterprise search, and WebCenter.
The promised Fusion SFA applications demonstrate how the ability to access common functionality at the application infrastructure level has the potential to expand the scope of business applications.
They also illustrate the point made previously by Jan Wagner, president of the Oracle Applications Users Group, that to understand Fusion Middleware is to understand Fusion applications.
At Oracle the talk is of Fusion applications rather than a Fusion Applications suite. Discrete applications are expected to trickle out over the course of 2008 and beyond, but there is unlikely to be a big bang launch of a packaged, integrated suite of the kind represented by the E-Business Suite or Siebel, for some time, if at all.
That is due in part to SOA and service-enablement changing the form of an application, where hard-coded suites are being replaced by service-based applications or components, business processes, and component and orchestration platforms. It is also a result of market and commercial realities where even a company as influential as Oracle cannot force a march to a new suite and supporting platform.
The Fusion application characteristics provide a means for old and new applications to co-exist, enabling customers to evolve to the new technology when and if they choose. But it will also have something to do with the sheer difficulty of the task.
Oracle is driving toward integration at the infrastructure level.
Fusion Middleware provides access to the Application Integration Architecture, its composite application platform and the method of bringing its disparate applications together. It is also the route to increasing degrees of common functionality that are accessible to old applications and core to new Fusion applications.
Eventually there will be a Fusion Middleware-led migration path to Fusion applications. The approach is one of stealthy evolution to Fusion, first to Fusion Middleware, then to Fusion applications.