By Alorie Gilbert
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
You have to give Oracle points for determination.
The software company has been thwarted at nearly every turn in its effort to acquire rival PeopleSoft, and that may have just been a warm-up. Oracle will head to U.S. District court on Monday to defend its hostile $7.7 billion bid against , who say the proposed buyout would result in price hikes for software that big companies use to organize their accounting, sales and human resources activities.
The trial will start just as the takeover effort passes the one-year mark. , to PeopleSoft's surprise, on June 6, 2003. Although a verdict is expected within a month or two, few see a quick resolution to the bitter clash.
If the U.S. Department of Justice has its way in court, Oracle may appeal the ruling. And if Oracle prevails, it faces another antitrust review by European regulators and an unfriendly PeopleSoft board, which has rejected four Oracle offers and readied a "poison pill" anti-takeover defense.
"This thing could drag on for another year or more," AMR Research analyst Jim Shepherd said.
But Oracle's tenacity comes at a price. It and PeopleSoft have suffered from the takeover tango, according to analysts.
The uncertain outcome of the merger bid has weighed on Oracle's stock price. Oracle's shares closed at $11.15 on Wednesday—nearly a 52-week low—despite an upswing in licensing revenue in recent quarters. On the line are Oracle's plans to expand and diversify its business, following a period of relative stagnation. Earlier this week, equity analysts underscored Oracle's dilemma. Prudential Financial analyst Brent Thill reduced his rating for the company, saying Oracle's long-term growth prospects appear limited without the help of an acquisition.
For PeopleSoft, the damage has been even more palpable. Despite a money-back-guarantee program designed to protect customers' purchases, PeopleSoft admits that the Oracle bid has put a and has cost the company a bundle in legal charges and related fees.
PeopleSoft employee morale has taken a hit, too. The company has endured a , including those of several top-ranking managers in charge of major product lines.
All this has sent PeopleSoft's stock skidding over the past six months. It closed at $17.65 on Wednesday, down from a brief high just above $24 in January. In response to the ongoing decline, Oracle last week from $26 a share to $21, taking about $1.7 billion off the table.
"(The Oracle bid) has clearly been detrimental to PeopleSoft's business; they've been upfront about that," Pacific Crest Securities analyst Brendan Barnicle said. "And you didn't see a bunch of business flooding back after the Justice Department decision" to oppose the deal.
PeopleSoft customers are still disturbed by Oracle's initial pledge to shut down its takeover target, a prospect Oracle CEO Larry Ellison appeared to relish in the early days of the bid, said Mike TenEyck, manager of administrative systems at Texas Christian University and president of the PeopleSoft Higher Education User Group. With his characteristic swagger, the Oracle chief promised to gut the company's staff and phase out its products. After setting off a panic wave, Oracle executives said they'd support PeopleSoft's products for 10 years.
"I think PeopleSoft is going to come out fine on this," TenEyck said. "But when Larry Ellison says what he says (about dismantling PeopleSoft), it makes you think twice."
More troubling yet is the fact that Oracle and PeopleSoft have , the market share leader in business applications and the most powerful player in the space, analysts say. Sales at SAP are humming along, particularly in the United States, putting further distance between the German company and its two closest rivals.
While Oracle and PeopleSoft duke it out, SAP has concentrated on launching its version of an emerging technology expected to make application software easier to modify and install. The company is touting its , a set of software development and interoperablity tools, as a major innovation.
"I don't see any new, daring, bold initiatives coming out of the Oracle or PeopleSoft camps," Forrester analyst Byron Miller said. "They've been in stasis all year; it's opened more doors for SAP."
Too many alternatives?
Wall Street worries that an antitrust ruling against Oracle would interfere with the Darwinian forces reshaping the battered software industry. The number of players needs to shrink, investors and observers say, for survivors to maintain the high profits to which they're accustomed and to unleash a new wave of growth.
Investors often welcome software buyouts, because with a glut of suppliers, companies can limp along for years—never failing but never thriving. "Software companies are like cockroaches; they're really hard to kill," Merrill Lynch analyst Jason Maynard said. "They can exist on maintenance fees for ages, but it's not necessarily great for the stability of pricing."
Adding to the competitive pressure is the comeback of subscription software companies such as Salesforce.com and NetSuite. As an alternative to the pay-up-front model SAP and PeopleSoft use, they collect small monthly fees for delivering applications over the Web.
Some analysts argue that the Oracle case won't significantly affect the course of the industry. The vast majority of acquisitions, typically friendly, proceed unhindered. Spectators are drawn to the drama, AMR Research's Shepherd said. Outrageous public exchanges between Oracle's Ellison and PeopleSoft chief Craig Conway have made for good entertainment.
"You've got people like Larry and Craig, who love the publicity and have giant egos and hate each other," Shepherd said. "We don't get those kinds of sparks very often in this industry."