NEW YORK -- The high tech world of Oracle seems as far removed from the fashion industry as its Redwood Shores, Calif., headquarters are from SA.
But just north of Silicon Valley's computer enclave is a software manufacturer that sees fashion as part of a total lifestyle, rather than isolated items animated in a video mall.
Oracle is developing software that will deliver interactive multimedia services like home shopping, movies-on-demand and personalized newspapers into the home. The software will run on The Oracle Media Server, a giant jukebox that stores and retrieves data.
In fashion, Oracle feels that designers with the ability to integrate a point of view into an array of product lines -- like Ralph Lauren or Chanel -- will offer enough options to populate entire programs.
To insure that its software is accepted by the fashion world, Oracle is looking to designers for input.
But there are only a handful of designers with such a wide range of merchandise and this single brand approach has yet to be proved in the TV home shopping arena. Still, Oracle, through its technological alliances, could have a significant impact on the burgeoning industry.
Through its connections with Bell Atlantic, U.S. West and British Telecommunications, Oracle can sell its software directly to telephone companies, leapfrogging over the messy cable television industry, which is fighting the Federal Communications Commission over rate regulations.
Oracle's Media Server will be deployed by Bell Atlantic this year. Bell Atlantic plans to offer interactive technology to 250,000 homes by Jan. 31. By comparison, cable companies like Viacom and Time Warner will be in the interactive test phase involving only a few thousand homes during the equivalent period.
"Home shopping is probably the best economic model" for interactive services, said Terence J. Garnett, senior vice president of Oracle's New Media Division. "Movies-on-demand is bad economics. People spend only $5 for a two-hour movie. With home shopping, a viewer may spend $100 or more in an hour."
Garnett has been preaching the gospel of Oracle on SA, to Hollywood power brokers and in publishing suites.
Rather than create a video shopping mall like Catalog 1, the Time Warner/Spiegel Inc. venture, or operate what is in effect an electronic store like Home Shopping Club or QVC, Oracle envisions interactive lifestyle programming devoted to a single designer or brand.Some of its notions are even grander than that -- an international bazaar where viewers can order goods from Harrods in London, for example.
"Harrods is one of the companies at the top of our list," Garnett said, although for the time being, conversations between the two have been cursory.
Garnett's wish list includes fashion's elite -- Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani. Convincing them of the virtues of home shopping "is going to be a full-time effort in the next few months," he said.
"I want to see beautiful people with incredible music and a script," Garnett said. "I may spend a half hour on the Chanel lifestyle. It's not walking through the video mall and talking to Suzanne Somers on an 800 number." Garnett's idea of lifestyle programming involves creating a story line around a designer's products. In the case of Ralph Lauren, it would involve all of the designer's merchandise, from apparel to home goods. "One of the greatest worldwide brands is Chanel," he said. "Ralph Lauren is clearly the Americana image. Versace and Armani have started to go beyond clothing. Versace makes towels, rugs and bedding. It's only available through a catalog in his stores, where you have to look at a tiny picture and the clerk has to call Italy to find out what sizes it comes in.
"Versace can double the size of his stores or say, 'Is there a Versace lifestyle to tap into?' If designers want to be on cable, they should go to the QVCs of the world," Garnett said.
"The first wave of home shopping was the QVC paradigm," he added. "It's got to be much more entertaining than that. It's almost like writing a script for a movie. Watching a half hour of how a shirt is made is not my idea of entertainment."
The interactive element of the shopping experience means that viewers can travel down a number of different paths, depending on the type of information they want about a product.
Garnett sees interactive home shopping as a way for designers to broaden the brands they have worked so hard to establish.But will Garnett's vision work without the cooperation of the designers he covets? Designers, who, he concedes, are still wary of home shopping? And how will designers' loyalties play out when retailers like TV Macy's and Nordstrom come calling?
"If not Ralph Lauren, maybe Robert Redford's Sundance," Garnett said, referring to the actor's catalog of jewelry, clothing and home furnishings. "If not Chanel, maybe Ferre." If designers aren't interested, Oracle sees possibilities in merchandising such brand names as Coca-Cola or even developing its own designers.
According to Garnett, the phone companies are better positioned to deliver interactive services than cable companies.
"They have much more fiber laid," he said. "Phone companies are global industries. There is no cable industry in Europe. If Ralph Lauren builds something with Bell Atlantic, they can take it to British Telecom. The phone companies will wire everyone up very rapidly."
Both Bell Atlantic and Oracle share the same aggressive approach to the interactive business.
"Our strategy is premised on early market entry, so in terms of looking for a strategic partner, here's someone that meshes with our desired time for deployment," Larry Plum, director of Bell Atlantic Video Services Co., a subsidiary of Bell Atlantic Corp., said of Oracle. "Also, their software organizes not just video, but text and data."
When Bell Atlantic's merger with Tele-Communications prematurely aborted last month, skeptics sounded the death knell of the information superhighway.
But in the wreckage of one company's failed mega-merger, Oracle has found more opportunity.
"The Bell Atlantic-TCI deal falling through is good news for us," Garnett said. "This makes Bell Atlantic much more focused on interactive instead of trying to integrate cable TV into the equation."
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