* New software sales rise 7 percent
* Hardware product revenue tumbles 16 percent
* Shares up 1.5 pct
(Adds analyst comment, updates shares)
By Jim Finkle
BOSTON, March 20 (Reuters) - Oracle Corp ORCL.O beat Wall Street's earnings estimates as new software sales came in at the high end of the company's forecast, offsetting a sharp drop in hardware revenue.
The software maker's stock rose 1.5 percent after the news, in sharp contrast to the sell-off three months ago when its second-quarter profit missed analysts' forecasts for the first time in a decade. [ID:N1E7BJ0CP].
"The software business bounced back," Citigroup analyst Walter Pritchard sai. "If you look at where the value is at Oracle, it would be the software business."
Oracle estimated that new software sales this quarter will range from a 2 percent drop to growth of as much as 8 percent, translating into $3.6 billion to almost $4 billion. The midpoint of that forecast, of 3 percent growth, is a sharp drop from the 19 percent increase in the fourth quarter of last year.
Yet Oracle Chief Financial Officer Safra Catz suggested on a conference call that the outlook may not be so grim. She said she had been "somewhat conservative" in calculating that forecast.
Still, shares in the company run by billionaire Larry Ellison pared half of the gains made earlier in the extended trading session. They had rallied 3 percent shortly after it posted earnings that beat Wall Street's lowered expectations.
Catz also estimated revenue from hardware, a persistent weak spot for the software firm, at $870 million to $980 million. Some analysts had expected hardware revenue of more than $1 billion as the company turns around the struggling division it got when it bought Sun Microsystems in 2010.
Oracle posted profit, excluding items, of 62 cents per share in its third quarter ended Feb. 29, beating the average forecast of 56 cents of analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Software sales rose 7 percent from a year earlier to $2.4 billion, at the high end of Oracle's own forecast.
"It’s a pretty significant turn," said Daniel Genter, president and chief investment officer of RNC Genter Capital Management. "The only weak spot was they’re a little low on the hardware."
Interactive chart of tech earnings so far: r.reuters.com/muh26s
Oracle, the world's No. 3 software maker after Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) and International Business Machines Corp (IBM.N), had forecast that new software sales would climb between 0 to 10 percent from a year earlier when it last reported earnings on Dec. 20.
Investors pay close attention to new software sales because they generate high-margin, long-term maintenance contracts and are an important gauge of Oracle's future profits.
To be sure, the 7 percent growth posted in the third quarter is lower than in previous periods, which does not bode well for future earnings, said Kim Forrest, an analyst with Fort Pitt Capital Group.
"In fiscal 2011 they were in the double digits, and now they are in the single digits. That’s never a good trend," she said.
The company also reported on Tuesday that hardware product sales fell 16 percent to $869 million. It had forecast a decline of between 5 and 15 percent.
Oracle shares rose to $30.55 in extended trade, after closing at $30.10 on Nasdaq.
(Reporting By Jim Finkle; Additional reporting by Liana B. Baker, Nicola Leske, Noel Randewich; Editing by Richard Chang)
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