Oracle's giveaway is no bargain

Oracle's making a version of its core database available for free. It needs to go a lot further

Famed for an institutional terror of undercharging that borders on neurosis, Oracle is an unlikely candidate for giving away its core product. Yet it is: from this week, Oracle Database Express is available for free download. It's limited in various ways, but nonetheless it is the genuine article. If you are curious, you are free to try it out.

Like any altruism, Oracle's generosity is fuelled by self-interest. With versions of competitive products available at little or no cost to developers and students, Oracle is in danger of being overlooked in the future. "We want to have mind-share with these people" says the company — a quote worthy of Bela Lugosi at his thirstiest.

It will take more than free software to get into those desirable brains — certainly more than what's on offer. The licence makes it clear that this is pre-production beta software to expire in January, which hardly encourages people to get involved and see what they can do. Although free software does not have to be free in every sense, it does have to be open-ended. People who develop for freer databases know they can continue to do so on their own terms: a 90-day cut-off period does nothing for motivation.

Oracle could also encourage experimentation by bundling some open source applications with Express: a database without a specific task is just a lump of disk space you can't use for anything else. The company is active in the open source community and should not be ashamed to use that involvement to help its quest for mind-share. If the idea is to get people involved, there has to be some payback for them.

Even this is too little to guarantee the results that Oracle wants. If it is serious about getting under the skin of tomorrow's product specifiers, it needs to give them what they want today — and that is a full-featured open source database that won't go away.