Oracle gives sneak peek at CRM suite, Release 3i

Oracle on Monday gave a sneak preview of the latest version of its Customer Relationship Management (CRM) suite here at the Oracle Applications User Group meeting, stressing that one of the biggest priorities for businesses today is to use information about customers effectively, whether on the Web, the phone, or face to face.

The new suite, called Release 3"i" for Internet (the same nomenclature as Oracle's other new releases), will get much of its power from integration with Oracle applications in finances, manufacturing, order-processing, and other functions that give a "360-degree view of the customer," according to Mark Barrenechea, senior vice president of the CRM division.

Its other strong point is replacing the client/server architecture with the Internet, for faster, easier, more flexible connectivity, Barrenechea added.

Release 3i adds new e-commerce, call-centre, and customer-service functions for a total of 35 front-office modules, and improves the mobile interfaces for palmtops and untethered laptop use, Oracle officials said.

A key feature lets users unite information from different channels, including the phone, the Internet, and face-to-face encounters with customers, Barrenechea said. For example, e-commerce customers can hit a button on their Web screen to connect them directly to a service agent over the phone. Mobile repair people can check dispatch orders or service information from the road via wireless Internet connections, he said.

The first shipment of 3i, which adds only the new mobile and call-center functions, will be shipped May 15, Barrenechea said. It will integrate immediately with Release 11.0 of Oracle's enterprise resource planning application suite, and does not itself require an upgrade to the 8i database, as Release 11i of the Oracle Applications suite will.

General availability of all the 3i modules will be around November, shortly after 11i starts going out to early adopters, Barrenechea added.

The new product configuration modules in Oracle CRM 3i were originally developed by Concentra, which Oracle bought several months ago. Oracle will continue to support integration of the configurator with other companies that licensed it before the merger, including rival Siebel Systems, according to senior vice president Ron Wohl.

"One thing I like is the mixing of traditional sales-force automation function with unassisted sales [over the Web.] I see it as a mixture of customer management and e-commerce, really," said Steve Bonadio, an analyst with the Hurwitz Group in Framingham.

"A lot of what 3i is doing is shoring up the functionality and making it a full suite, not a bunch of point solutions," Bonadio added.

Oracle's emphasis on front-office applications makes sense at a time when demand for manufacturing and related functions has cooled off, Bonadio said. But the market for sales, service, and marketing automation is still young, with plenty of room to grow; in fact, Oracle could see its sales of front-office modules grow by 35 percent to as much as 50 percent in the next year, he said.

"But we'll never know for sure because Oracle refuses to break out its numbers" for applications, as separate from sales figures for its databases, application development tools, and other products, Bonadio added.

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