Let’s all play the celebrity CEO game! It goes like this ... you take the word “Oracle” and you throw away the first two letters. Then you replace the missing letters with three more — D, E and B. What have you got now? That’s right: DEBACLE!
Larry Ellison’s already-infamous keynote at Oracle OpenWorld in Los Angeles wasn’t wholly his fault — the glitches in his attempted network computer demos stemmed from network bugs that had been plaguing the conference centre for two days.
But it did serve as a warning that perhaps the Oracle CEO should get out of the way of the wave of network computing he so brilliantly set in motion.
Network Computer (NCI), the company formed in the wake of Ellison’s 1996 decree of a new paradigm, is a very bright child. By June, when it merged with Netscape’s Navio and became an affiliate, rather than a subsidiary, of Oracle, Ellison had helped stack it with smart young people.
NCI has gone forth and engaged hardware vendors, developed its own software solutions, driven important standards, gotten product on the street and run up a tasty line in promotional clothing. The hard-nosed IT business mag Red Herring named it as the “best long-term prospect” of 100 technology companies it surveyed for its September issue.
Ellison, who is still chairman of NCI board, could have made a sweeping gesture and given up his OpenWorld keynote slot to someone like NCI’s head of product management, Jeff Menz. Menz, who was a youngster at Apple when Steve Jobs shipped the first Macs, articulates quite a vision.
Yet no one from NCI got to speak in the main conference hall. Instead, Ellison made essentially the same speech as he’d made the last couple of times he’d taken a stage — one even he seemed bored with.
When the subsequent demos started to seize up, he got flustered and forgot to go back to the system which was working and only needed to boot. And even if every NC demo had gone flawlessly, why should 7000 people watch a CEO plug things in and cut and paste URLs?
The NC didn’t need Larry Ellison to lay hands on it to be proven. The proof was out on the mezzanine floor, where thousands of delegates needed only to slip their smartcards into one of the public NCs, do some basic profiling and then have any NC at the show snap to their preferences for the rest of the week. That worked — and it worked for regular people.
And why was the head of Oracle twiddling with the client end of the business anyway? He could have — as Oracle president Ray Lane did the day before — talked about how and where Oracle would extend its core competencies to foster the new environment it was helping create. He could have shown how he keeps his own PC data on a database server and not a hard disk instead of just talking about it.
Menz, speaking the next day in a room a hundred times smaller the main hall, hinted that an Oracle conference, where the likes of Compaq, Digital, Sun and Sequent dominate successive days, was no place for NCI “and we probably won’t be here in two years’ time”.
He was right. Oracle’s market is essentially a conservative one. Look how it punished Informix for trying to leap ahead a generation and forgetting its core business. Look how little the market cared when Oracle 8 showed up without some of its object bells and whistles. It just wants the trains to run on time.
But back to Larry. Having become so flustered on stage that he told a questioner in the audience that Apple Computer had that very day announced a Mac-based NC (it hadn't) Ellison regained his composure in time for a typically snazzy performance at a press conference only half an hour later. Here are a few of his thoughts:
On SAP’s dominance in the enterprise applications market and what can be done to bridge the gap:
“We were thinking of buying some Ohio-class missile submarines ... we’ve been growing faster than SAP for several years and we think we can accelerate that differential. We’re number one in database, we’re number two in applications and we’d sorely love to be number one there too. We’re closing the gap and one way to do that is to have better applications based on more modern technology.
“And one of the things that has given us a huge leap is this new generation of applications that runs on thin clients. one hundred percent of our applications will run on a simple Java viewer. That’s different from PeopleSoft, it’s different from SAP. And that makes our applications much lower-cost to deploy and maintain and more predictable in performance. That’s a huge technology and economic advantage. The product which makes that possible is called Web Forms and it’s our must important new tool in a decade.”
On Apple Computer and its NC plans:
“I think Apple is going to do spectacularly well. When Andy Grove was asked who in the PC industry he most admired, he said Steve Jobs. I’d like to stand up right next to Andy and “me too”. Here’s the guy who popularised the personal computer with the Apple II, popularised bitmap graphics, desktop publishing, laser printing, the mouse point-and-click user interfaces — all of this was introduced by computers designed by Steve Jobs.
“So the answer is, Apple is going to make Mac-oriented NCs. I can’t tell what they cost and when they’ll be here because Steve’ll break my neck. With Steve back at the helm at Apple, even on an interim basis, you’ll see more innovation in 10 weeks than in the 10 years without Steve. He is the most gifted visionary and the most talented person in our industry.
“I’ve seen the new products and I’ve participated a little bit in them. Steve was around at my house for breakfast and was showing me the cool new products they’re doing at Apple. “I’m always sorry I didn’t buy Apple stock. But I couldn’t buy Apple stock because I had too much insider information. I was always foreclosed from making any purchase of Apple because the securities and exchange commission would have been down on me. I was never able to do it.”
On Microsoft and Java:
“The whole idea about Java is that you write an application once and its runs on a Macintosh, a PC and a Sun workstation. But Bill has a better idea. Bill has MS Java. MS Java is wrapped around ActiveX and it only runs on Bill’s Windows. But it’s better than ordinary Java because it only runs on Bill’s Windows and the other stuff is just confusing for the
“He also has his own versions of Spanish and English — MS Spanish and MS English. They’re better than regular Spanish or English, but you’ve got to pay Bill a dollar every time you speak. There’s industry-standard 100% pure Java, or there’s Bill’s ‘you can buy it only from me and you can run it only when you pay me’ Java.”
On Oracle’s troubled competitor, Informix:
“Oracle went through a revenue shortfall and a restatement seven years ago. But our revenue shortfall was about 5% of total revenues. Informix’s shortfall is over 50% of total revenues. The magnitude of Informix’s problem is 10 times the one we went thought. The magnitude is breathtaking.
“I met [Informix CEO] Bob Finocchio and I think he will tell you that he did not understand the magnitude of the problem when he took the job. It is staggering and unbelievable to miss your revenue by more than half. Consider the fact that half your revenue you get automatically from services — so that’s licence sales of zero or less. I know of no precedent for any company in the industry facing that. I would share the view of the analysts who maintain that Informix cannot continue as a viable corporation.”