Oracle's earliest foray into the application server market pre-dated the phenomenal rise of Java. It underscored Oracle's belief in PL/SQL and its development tools, which (at that time) were bringing home the bacon. Then Java came along, leaving the first OAS out on a limb and Oracle with work to do.
Oracle's initial attempts to embrace Java were tainted by the company's PL/SQL and Forms legacy. Oracle's image in the app server market was further tainted by some rather sophisticated claims over market share. At one point, Oracle produced figures that "showed" that the Oracle app server shared the top spot with Forte. These figures told us more about the fact that if you slice and dice a set of numbers enough, you're bound eventually to come up with a figure that suits you (even if the result is bizarre), than it did about the prowess of Oracle's app server.
Oracle seemed doomed to misread Java's potential role as a provider of infrastructure. Then, the company had a rethink that has resulted in a much better product, positioning and place in the market for Oracle. With Oracle 9i, the company deserves a lot of credit for getting its application server act together in a comprehensive way. Relatively few technology firms have the ability (and to a certain extent the humility) to step back and ask the two questions: "What have we been doing wrong?" and "How should we fix it?"
While it's unlikely that Oracle will take the kind of market share that IBM and BEA can boast, the company's new products - coupled with a clearer marketing look - seems set to propel it into a secure slot among the second-tier vendors.
This change in fortunes is noteworthy because of its rarity. Technology firms struggle with the kind of step-change that application servers brought to the market. It is relatively unusual for them to successfully rethink and rebuild their approach to a particular market. Oracle's apparent success should serve as an object lesson to others. It is possible to bring about significant change if you have a strong executive, a willingness to change and an ability to look objectively at your own successes and failures. There are many technology firms that would do well to learn this lesson. High up on that list lies Sun Microsystems - a company that has a lot of changing to do, and relatively little time to do it in.