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The Closed World of Oracle Open World

Insofar as I characterized Oracle Open World as a communications disaster in my last blog post, I think it’s fair to explain why I feel this way and what it means for Oracle and the market.

Oracle Open World is singularly the worst customer event I attend every year, a forced march so large and unwieldy that I and most people I know who attend – customers and influencers alike – end up trying at best to endure the event, much less benefit from it. And yet we must attend, as it is for the most part the only time in the year that Oracle will actually try to engage in a meaningful dialogue with both influencers like myself, and, indirectly and directly, with its customers and prospects. Because once the gates close and the drawbridge is drawn up on Open World, Oracle goes back to being a very closed world indeed.

Oracle has always been about controlling the message, something all companies try to do one way or another. But over the years, as the lawyers have risen in power and the company’s acquisition strategy has made a virtue out of bafflingly complex fiscal reporting, Oracle has more and more turned its communications strategy towards the goal of limiting, not expanding, the flow of information from the company to the market, and controlling those who try to cut through the PR and get to the meat of the issues surrounding the company.

This is Oracle’s prerogative, though it comes with an implied arrogance – we are so right in what we do that there is no need for any real scrutiny – and a decidedly anti-customer tilt – trust us, we’re on your side – that is belied by many of the company’s strategies. And that control has its consequences for any company – customer, partner, and competitor – that is making huge strategic bets on Oracle and needs, make that deserves, to know that those bets are based on facts, not something else.

The Open World communications disaster begins with two time-honored traditions at Oracle: The first is that Open World is the only major forum by which Oracle engages with influencers every year. Whereas most of the enterprise software market holds multiple user conferences, tech conferences, partner conferences, analyst summits, and press events, Oracle basically bottles up an entire year’s worth of new products and strategies into a five day window in October.

Into this extremely short window must fall all the aspirations of anyone looking for an understanding of this massive and increasingly important company’s products and strategy, and hoping for a dialogue and some critical thinking to boot. Sure, I am told that Oracle has thousands of events every year around the world, but those are tightly controlled, very select sales and marketing events that are all about lead generation and absolutely not about truly informing the market of what Oracle is up to. (Though, as I write these sentences, the notion that Open World is not a tightly controlled, very select sales and marketing event is starting to seem a little absurd.)

Nonetheless, Open World actually does sort of aspire to dialogue and to opening up the company to some critical thinking, despite the limits of its massive scale and the company’s focus on controlling access and information.  Of course, the fact that Open World occurs once a year and in such a short time frame makes it impossible for anyone – customer or influencer – to truly see and hear everything they’ve been yearning to know for the last twelve months.

And that’s before the second tradition, the Larry Ellison Effect, takes over.

The Larry Ellison Effect takes this once-a-year event and makes it an even bigger disaster through a peculiar twist of executive fiat: Larry likes to bat both first and last at Open World, and that means that while some opening remarks and a couple of announcements get made Sunday night (Sunday night–  Ugh) at the start of the conference, a huge chunk of the really juicy announcements don’t get made until the conference is virtually over: Wed. afternoon this year, 70 hours after Open World began.

This effectively kills any chance for a dialogue about whatever Larry wants to announce. This year it was the company’s cloud strategy, exactly the kind of complex, important announcement that could really benefit from a few days of follow-up briefings, conversations, and, yes, critical thinking. With the announcement on Wed. afternoon, and with not much left of the conference and many attendees already brain dead from the previous three days chasing the Oracle story, Oracle’s cloud strategy was left to be merely pondered, instead of actually understood.

(To their credit, the communications team tried to fix this problem by sending out an email at 3:40 PM on Wed. – right as Larry’s keynote was getting underway – that Thomas Kurian would be available at 5 PM that evening for a deep dive on cloud strategy. Needless to say, with that kind of advanced notice, many influencers, myself included, couldn’t make it.)

The applications team has recently been the major victim of the Larry Effect, as hardware announcements – remember, Oracle’s investors need the company to sell a lot of hardware – have dominated the Sunday night keynote. This means that the apps gang has to sit on its hands and basically say nothing about the most important announcements of the conference, waiting for Larry to deign to deliver their key messages. It makes for an almost comical interchange between otherwise intelligent and capable Oracle execs who have been forced to play dumb and dumber about key issues and strategies for fear of stepping on Larry’s toes.

But wait, there’s more – or less, really. Oracle also makes no bones about Open World being a sales event – point noted – and that means that there are virtually no meetings between influencers and executives, at least not by the standards of the industry: The four or so events Oracle’s competitors hold each year include multiple opportunities to put influencers in front of the execs and get the dialogue going. In doing so, most of Oracle’s competitors believe – or at least pay lip service to – the notion that they learn from the dialogue as much as the influencers. Oracle, with so much to learn, thinks otherwise.

The real question that I keep trying to figure out is whether this is all deliberate – as in, Oracle’s top leadership really doesn’t want to have this dialogue – or whether it’s more just a matter of style. As I ponder the question I am reminded of how Tom Siebel used to conduct his eponymous company’s quarterly financial calls. Rather than discuss meaningful strategy and other useful information, Tom would quickly dive into a level of financial minutia that could put a triple black belt accountant to sleep. Tables, charts, data points, all analyzed in excruciating detail. Minute after minute, on and on he would drone, until time was up and there really wasn’t anything anyone wanted to know other than how to get off the phone.

Could this be the real purpose of Open World: listen to the story we want to tell and don’t expect us to leave time or energy for dialogue? Take the information we want to give you and to hell with the information you think you need to know? This certainly has been the underpinning of the analyst program that I used to be part (I’m now a blogger, according to Oracle, analysts apparently work for big firms that sell Oracle lots of research and over which Oracle feels it has some leverage as a result.) My “handler” at the 2010 Open World said exactly that to me when I dared deviate from the program she put together for “me” in order to try to find out what I had come there to learn.

Regardless, I think that it’s indisputable that the result of this lacuna is a dearth of information and openness about the company’s products and strategy, a company that sits on top of a massive ecosystem of customers and partners who, as I said earlier, need to know a lot more about the Oracle than the company is willing to discuss. Too bad for all concerned. While Oracle seems to get richer by the minute no matter what it does, Oracle’s customers and the market at large are made all the more poorer by what is clearly a deliberate  communications disaster.

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The Customer Comes Second…..Oracle’s Engineered for Investors Software Stack

I spent much of last week sorting through the absolutely overwhelming communications disaster called Oracle Open World in search of some clarity on Oracle’s vision for its customers, and have come to the following conclusion: Oracle’s applications customer strategy just isn’t about making things better for its customers.

The problem with the Oracle of today is that the focus of a group of the some of the best technology minds in the industry has been hijacked to fulfill a vision that is skewed more towards fulfilling the promise of a decade-old merger and acquisition strategy than it is towards making customers both successful and happy. And the vision comes with a built-in irony that has me convinced that the customer comes second at Oracle, second to the shareholders whose addiction to Oracle’s margins has driven the executive team at Oracle to consider investors, not actual companies that consume its software, as the real customers.

Let’s start with the irony: Oracle is selling a vision of an integrated hardware stack that is magnificent in its simplicity: everything from the silicon to storage to networking are all “engineered” to work together. I wouldn’t be surprised if the electrons inside their boxes are also engineered by Oracle. If they could gain some sort of system-level efficiency by altering the laws of physics, they probably would do that too.

Contrast that with the software side of Oracle’s product line, and the irony arrives by the bucket load. Oracle’s applications strategy is the antithesis of integrated , in reality a hairball of products and underlying technologies, data models and deployment models, that could have only been “engineered” by an M&A strategist. Any real engineer would be crucified for pretending this software strategy makes sense for the customer looking for an integrated applications environment.

Four (or five, depending on how you count it) main product lines, each with its own code base. And literally dozens of other products, acquired with the goal of improving shareholder value, most of which also came with their own proprietary software or data models. Hundreds of business processes, many overlapping and redundant from one product to the next. And a big, hairy-chested middleware “suite” – Fusion Middleware – that is itself a conglomeration of technologies – a little Java here, some BEA and BPEL there, some MDM, some analytics , some DBMS technology, the more the merrier, all jammed into a one-size-fits-no-one morass of integration options. To simplify things, they also have an integration system called AIA that is used infrequently for the very reason that it’s an expensive, complex, technically challenging, and hard to cost-justify Tower of Babel erected to a false deity, the Oracle integrated software stack.

Compounding the irony is that, despite Larry’s insistence – could he be that out of touch with his customers that he believes this? – that integrating his software stack is easy, the reality is that integration is hard, expense, and, most ironic of all, the responsibility of the customer, not Oracle. There is no magic bullet, no easy-to-configure wizard, for the majority of the integration that Oracle customers require to run their businesses on Oracle software. Nope, it’s all about custom development, using expensive development resources. Sure, there are more and more “integrations” being built by Oracle, and more all the time. And as long as time is not of the essence, one day Oracle will have filled out the massive matrix of integrations required to link hundreds of key business processes across dozens of often overlapping applications. One day.

In the meantime, the customer has to wire this hairball up. And, having talked to many customers about this issue, the conclusion I came to is that Oracle’s investors are missing a big part of the problem they have helped to create. Because, in the long term, as long as customers are not using AIA to solve this problem systematically, the total cost of ownership of the investor-driven software model Oracle has foisted on the market will remain excessive,  and render Oracle vulnerable to a lot of smarter, and more agile, and better rationalized competitors.

The irony of the roll-your-own integration conundrum on the software side is how much of a non-starter it would be on the hardware side. Imagine having to solder the connections in your rack systems, splice the cables to your storage systems, write your own network protocols – kind of reminds me of the state of the art when I started in this business in the 1980s. And here we are, thirty years later, and Oracle’s customers have been pulling out the soldering irons and user manuals in order to realize their vendor’s integrated software stack vision.

It’s amazing how pervasive the problem is, and how out of touch Oracle seems to be about it. Even customers who were hand-picked by the Oracle communications team to talk to the influencers at Open World had war stories about this problem. One customer I spoke with was told by Oracle that Agile PLM would plug right into a process manufacturing instance of eBusiness Suite, and two years later this happy customer (Stockholm Syndrome, anyone?) was still fighting Oracle’s integration battle inside his company, at his expense. Another customer shared a similar story about Siebel CRM and eBusiness Suite, another about PeopleSoft and Siebel. And so it goes in the engineered-for-investors Oracle stack.

This disconnect, this dystopic vision, becomes even more ironic when you add Fusion Apps to the mix. Here’s a new suite that has to be sold in parts to customers using other, older parts of the Oracle product mix because selling it as a suite would expose its severe limitations in terms of industry-specific functionality. With integration as the starting point, you’d think Oracle would engineer the integration between Fusion Apps and the key products in the suite to be a no-brainer for the customers. Wrong. Coders, start your engines: Oracle Fusion Apps require the customer to do the majority of the integration work in order to make the products work with the rest of the Oracle stack. Sure, they are building the integration points – there are 10 or 15 available today as Fusion goes GA – but how that piecemeal approach to the core requirement of integration helps control customer costs and deliver customer value is beyond me.

I’m not even sure it delivers customer value either. Interestingly, I spent much of Open World button-holing applications customers and asking them if they were planning on upgrading to the Exadata/logic/lytics strategy. The answer was universal – not now. When I asked them why, it was because they couldn’t see the value in such a migration, not when they were up to their eyeballs upgrading and integrating their apps. And when I asked them when they might consider such a move, the answer boiled down to the following: when Oracle gives me a clear ROI strategy for migrating that I can take to the board. And when I asked Oracle for evidence of this strategy, the answer was simple, there is none.

One Oracle exec whom I asked did discuss an ROI strategy, but his answer was basically about the ROI for Oracle. (Sound bite: running on Exadata lowers Oracle’s support costs. Translation: investors get even better margins.) And while I was promised that this ROI strategy would be revealed to me when it was available, I’m not holding my breath.

Because in the end Oracle’s roll-up the best of breed strategy has never been about better TCO for the customers. It’s been about optimizing the sales opportunity for Oracle’s incredibly effective sales machine, while bringing smaller, inefficient software companies under the razor-sharp cost-cutting eye of Safra Catz. There is certainly a fair amount of consideration about customer choice in the strategy as well – they have many truly best of breed apps in the portfolio – but that has increasingly fallen prey to the requirement for delivering more red meat – in the form of profit margins – to an extremely avaricious investor community hell-bent on looking out for number one.

That hunt for profit margins is now all the more acute because of the strain that the Sun acquisition has put on those margins. Safra Catz is now on the record for two quarters promising that the company will soon get back to its former, pre-Sun, margin glory, with little specific guidance on when that will actually happen. Hence the real focus of Open World, which was one big, fat commercial for Exa-everything. Sure, there were plenty of keynotes about things like clouds and apps, but there was no mistaking what Larry was really selling: engineered hardware  systems. And there is no mistaking the almost frantic urgency in the subtext to that message: we won’t make good on our promise to Wall Street if the customers don’t start buying more hardware.

The shame of it all is that the applications team and their products, the above notwithstanding, are some of the best of the best. The core products continue to evolve nicely, Fusion Apps like Distributed Order Orchestration and Talent Management are pretty cool. I even like what Larry is saying about the cloud and multi-tenancy (it’s not the be-all and end-all of cloud computing, despite the orthodoxy of the much of the SaaS market). But the way that Oracle has now slotted its applications strategy into the larger investor strategy, and effectively forced customers, particularly apps customers, to bear the financial and complexity burdens of a strategy designed primarily for the investors, is more than a shame.

Where does this all lead? There are definitely apps customers who could benefit from engineered systems, but I think a more agnostic, customer-choice hardware model fits the needs of modern businesses best. Meanwhile, Oracle’s acquisition of best of breed vendors will run into a more rapidly shifting mobility-based user experience revolution that is already under way, and already making new user experiences like those in Fusion Apps look old and tired by comparison.

And therein lies a big risk for Oracle’s investors and customers alike. SaaS and PaaS make it much easier to slot in best of breed than ever before, and new development environments make it easy to build new SaaS-based apps more quickly than ever before (Kenandy built its ERP apps using Salesforce’s APEX in months, not years.) Meanwhile, customers are under more and more pressure to genuinely lower costs in a demonstrable way, and that means more attention to TCO in software and hardware, even if their vendors try to hide the true cost of their systems and pretend that, as Oracle claims, it’s time for a hardware refresh because the vendor says so.

All this means that as Oracle is forced to carry this enormous legacy portfolio forward, and as its Fusion Apps continue to be hamstrung by a lack of vertical and geographical specificity, the risk that Safra won’t make good on her promise to Wall Street increases. Right now, Oracle’s case to its customers on the value of engineered systems looks too much like the case it’s making to Wall Street. Until that changes – if it can change – Oracle is headed down a path that at best lacks customer-centricity and at worst is genuinely customer hostile. Engineered systems can be useful, but only as long as they are engineered for the right reasons…..

The Mobile Metaphor Rules, for Better and Worse

Every once in a while we analysts have an epiphany that rings a bell on one side of the brain while shouting out a giant “duh” on the other. That’s part of the bipolarity of what we do: sometimes the most startling revelations are the ones you’ve seen a dozen times, until finally that bell goes off, even as you realize that you really should have had that revelation a few months earlier, if only you had been paying attention.

So it goes with my recent revelation about the mobile platform as the design center of the  enterprise. Because the more I think about it, the more I wish I had thought about it sooner. Now that the enterprise software market is well on the way to shifting the bulk of its efforts in this direction, there’s a big fat caveat emerging that could take a lot of the excitement out of the shift to the mobile metaphor: the potential for a market freeze as the growing expectations of mobile user experience nirvana come up against the  harsh reality of a paucity of apps that leverage this opportunity. Because, despite all the hype and promise, it’s going to take years for the enterprise software market to meet the expectations it is now so avidly sowing, at the risk of reaping the proverbial whirlwind instead.

My revelatory moment started with Workday asking the analysts at a recent summit to test-drive their new HR management iPad app. The app was way cool, and started the brain waves flowing. Next up was my stint judging the gamification Innojam at SAP’s TechEd. As my fellow judges and I watched the contestants show off their stuff, the contrast between the gamified interfaces – most of them built with a mobile platform in mind – and the “old” SAP screens was almost shocking. Then came the fact, as I reported from TechEd, that the mobile experience is the design metaphor for SAP going forward.

And the kicker came when I watched SAP CEO Bill McDermott, being interviewed on Jim Cramer’s Mad Money show,  pull out his iPad and show how a CEO like Bill can run a company like SAP.  Rinnnnggggggg….

It was a masterful performance by McDermott, and one that showcased how SAP’s thinking is ahead of the market (and me, duh.) But the combination of the above revelations also highlights an important conundrum: for whom does this ringing in my ear toll?

The conundrum for McDermott, and his counterparts across the industry, even newbies like Workday, is that this mobile metaphor – okay, let’s call it what it really is, the iPad metaphor – is so compelling, so visually and tactilely immersive, that it threatens to run away with market. Or at least the market’s expectations.

I have been doing a minor in user interface design during the last few years, and it’s amazing how quickly the iPad has made the huge investments in user experience guidelines by everyone in the enterprise space – Microsoft, Oracle, Salesforce.com, as well as SAP, Workday and others – look like yesterday’s green screen.  How do you keep them down on the desktop once they’ve seen Bill run his business on an iPad?

It’s true that there are many many things you can’t do on an iPad that you can do on a PC, but hey, that’s beside the point.  It’s the same as with that former enterprise software metaphor of the hour, Amazon: I can’t begin to tell you how many times the simplicity of the Amazon user experience has been touted as the defining user experience for the enterprise, despite the fact that Amazon’s user process has maybe seven sub processes (find, add to cart, ship, buy, return, report, review) while a real business process would typically have dozens. Try telling that to the user – especially a member of the up and coming iPad generation: sorry, wrong number, dude.

Which is why there’s not a small amount of danger in the expectations that McDermott, or Workday, or every other enterprise software company with a well-designed mobile app are setting for the market. If McDermott says that I can now run my company from my iPad, then by gum he better give me that software. And while it’s good that I, the CEO, can run my company this way, it would be even better if all my managers could run their divisions this way.

And pretty soon, the drum beat is demanding that SAP and its cohorts make it possible for every user in the entire company to run their show on an iPad. Whereupon something horrid happens: the enterprise software market stalls, waiting for the next best thing to be available,  in this case an across-the-board user experience that will take years for the market to deliver. It’s like declaring that a Y2K-like software refresh is around the corner, but it won’t be until Y2.5K that the industry can deliver a solution. Slam on the spending brakes.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way.  If expectations are set well, both for what is actually possible from a design point – as in, how far can the iPad metaphor go before it loses its user experience advantage – as well for what is a reasonable roadmap for moving the mobile metaphor across the industry, then perhaps the stall can be avoided.

But those expectations need to be set soon, because a drum beat is being heard across the industry that may threaten a lot of good companies and their products. That’s the problem with setting expectations too high. You never know when the mob that’s cheering you in the streets will suddenly start demanding your head.

The Innovator’s Challenge: SAP Crosses the Rubicon, but the Empire is Still to be Won

SAP has spent several years and several billion dollars trying to formulate a strategy that propels it ahead of an unprecedented set of market forces, and this year’s TechEd helped set the stage for a 2012 that is poised to be the year SAP finally crosses the innovation Rubicon.

Of course, as students of history will tell you, crossing the Rubicon was only the beginning of the journey that made an emperor out of the general who led his army over the forbidden river. SAP faces a similar journey – the real test will be in seeing how well SAP can marshal its technology, field sales efforts, and partner ecosystem into a fighting force ready for historic conquest. By contrast, showcasing a growing palette of innovation – which SAP did in spades this week at TechEd – is the easy part.

Because more and more the battle SAP now engages is truly epic – at least in the otherwise mundane world of technology – precisely because of the massive bets the SAP board has laid on the table: as the sole standalone enterprise software giant, SAP is fighting perhaps its greatest battle against market perceptions that bundling hardware and services is the only way to reap the margins and profitability that Wall Street believes are required of successful technology companies.

Those market perceptions have seen Oracle and its hardware focus become the standard of excellence for the sector, despite massive questions about the role of innovation at Oracle. These perceptions have also lead HP to embrace software and services, and Dell to embrace services as an adjunct to their own respective innovation Rubicons.

Meanwhile, SAP has chosen to largely stick with its software-only strategy, though more and more its offering are requiring a level of services that are making the concept of out-of-the-box functionality even more mythological than ever. Importantly, SAP’s software-inter-pares focus has made it the company to watch as Oracle prepares for its OpenWorld user conference and gets ready for a quarterly results call that will put a bright spotlight on whether Oracle can make good on Safra Catz’s promise to get the company back to software-like margins now that Sun has been fully digested.

The problem for Oracle is that SAP’s software strategy is making a lot of sense as an innovative wedge into the enterprise, one that has the potential for challenging the bundling and hardware-based low TCO strategy that is at the core of the Oracle way. SAP’s challenge is to prove that the advantages of its software innovation strategy provide a better long-term value than Oracle’s dual software rollup and Exa-twins strategy.

The potential advantages to SAP’s strategy were out in force at TechEd this year, from the gamification theme to the focus on mobility to the HANA drumbeat (actually drum and bugle corps is a better description) to the continual progress on cloud-based analytics. In conversations with customers and partners, it was clear that the top level message that SAP is innovating in areas that are near and dear to the market’s heart was being heard in all the right quarters.

The mobility and HANA stories were the most impressive to me. SAP has made it clear that its reading of the enterprise tea leaves have shown that the mobile experience is the design center for the enterprise of the future. I spent the first day at TechEd asking SAP execs of all stripes about this question, and the answer was consistent: if you are a customer or partner and want to develop a new enterprise app, your design starts with the mobile user experience. That app can use HANA, pull data from the Business Suite, and be as transactional or analytical as you would like, but if it doesn’t look good on an iPad, it’s back to the drawing board time.

This is not only consistent with where other market leaders and innovators are headed, but it also shows the recognition that even the most modern SAP Business Suite user experience pales in usability when compared to the standard mobile app: Which of course makes SAP’s Sybase investment make all the more sense. That was the observation number two from TechEd: the DNA strands from Sybase are more and more tightly interwoven with the core DNA of SAP, and the evolutionary advantages are starting to show.

Meanwhile, TechEd was HANA’s own Rubicon. SAP announced that the dream of HANA as an OLTP engine for the Business Suite was now within reach, and that the company was actively working to move several thousand SAP Business Warehouse customers off their Oracle RDBMS platforms and on to HANA. While many of these customers have to run the gauntlet of Oracle’s contract lawyers in order exit their license agreements without incurring huge penalties, SAP is busily preparing a business case for BW customers that will make it cost-effective for these customers to make the shift.

The prospect that SAP could be presenting these customers with a faster, better and cheaper way to run their data warehouses as compared to Oracle should rattle a few cages over at Oracle. And with HANA-ready apps and services, HANA as a platform play in the cloud, and other parts of the SAP in-memory strategy coming to fruition, it’s no wonder that SAP is touting HANA as the fastest growing pipeline for an SAP product in the company’s history (okay, so the bar might be set a little low, it’s still an impressive claim.)

This prospect of a major HANA pipeline – and that’s before SAP taps the multi-billion dollar BW replacement market – was a major reason for SAP’s success in its last quarter, a point emphasized by Bill McDermott when I spoke to him about the quarter in July. His other main point was in evidence at TechEd – the strategy of innovating largely around what SAP likes to call a “stable” core is one that is making tremendous sense for its customers. It was clear in every customer conversation I had that the notion of adding new functionality like HANA or new mobile or analytics apps on top of the Business Suite was making huge sense for these customers. This was the dual nature of every customer’s raison-d’etre a TechEd: keep an eye on what’s going to make the core easier and more efficient to run, while looking for the cool new apps that will make the business more competitive.

So the Rubicon has been crossed, what of the battle for the empire? The question really boils down to what the SAP board is willing to do about its innovation opportunity. The problem with SAP and innovation is twofold. The first is that the company has so much innovation going on in so many quarters that it risks drowning in the river instead of crossing it. This is of course a messaging problem for newly crowned CMO Jonathan Becher, who has the unenviable task of making sure SAP is consistently on message in the 24 industries and dozen or so major markets in which it wants to wear the innovator’s crown. This means places where SAP has been traditionally weak – like CRM and HRMS, both of which now have really nice new mobile apps in the quiver – as well as places SAP has been traditionally strong, like manufacturing and supply chain. It means taking the rest of SAP into the new markets, like mobility and financial services , that Sybase brings to the table. And it means distilling one of the more comprehensive and  complex innovation messages in the market into the SAP equivalent of IBM’s Smarter Planet, or Oracle’s Engineered for Innovation.

The second problem for the SAP board involves Oracle, and to a lesser extent IBM: how willing is the board, because in the end it’s their decision, to take on Oracle in aggressive fight for the growing pool of IT dollars that McDermott now sees as shifting towards innovation. That fight requires SAP to shift from its usual preference to play defense against Oracle to playing offense, and the stomach for this fight is the real question.

Take HANA and in-memory as the perfect example: It’s clear that Oracle will be making a major move against HANA at OpenWorld –they threw down the gauntlet here even before TechEd was over. If SAP plays its usual hand, and Oracle plays its usual hand, then Oracle will successfully steal the in-memory ball and start running for the goal line, red and yellow cards be damned, while SAP will put on a sincerely good chase. Rinse and repeat for mobile – it’s hard to imagine Oracle will let another OpenWorld go by without making some commitment to the mobility market. The only real question is what is SAP prepared to do about it.

SAP has the opportunity to fight Oracle on its home turf – SAP is, after all, now a database company too – as well as take the fight to new markets. This opportunity would involve blending a strong innovation message with a strong total cost of ownership message, and it would involve direct engagement with an aggressive and highly successful opponent. To do so might not guarantee success, but failing to do so would guarantee mediocrity, and further threaten SAP’s ability to make the case to its investors that the last standing enterprise software giant deserves to continue standing.

I have to close this TechEd rant with a note on gamification, which was one of the themes of TechEd and was the subject of an Innojam – a 30-hour coding quest – that resulted in a contest for the best gamified app (of which I had the honor to be one of the judges). SAP’s focus on gamification in the enterprise is another example of some fearless thinking with respect to innovation, but the results from the Innojam proved to me that any fear of gamification is completely unfounded.

First off, the 13 teams that made it into the final round were exemplified by an incredible energy and creativity – and excitement – that itself was innovative. The sparks in the room were palatable, and the different approaches to gamifying SAP were impressive. My own favorite – the “Do I Know You App” mentioned in the link above, which is an app that lets meeting attendees put names to faces and otherwise learn about the people with whom they are about to meet – didn’t win, but it exemplified a winning gamified “SAP” app in three important ways:

  • The user experience was hip, mobile, entertaining, and in very sharp contrast to the traditional SAP look and feel, even the Business Suite at its most modern.
  • The app was engaging and intrinsically as well as explicitly rewarding, and the explicit rewards of gamification enhanced the intrinsic reward of being able to have a more engaging meeting, even with people one has never met before.
  • The app enhanced an important component of the kinds of people-centric business processes that SAP has to capture in order to reach its billion-user goal.

It’s easy to say that gamification is really way out there, and is something that SAP is doing just to look cool, even as it pulls on its suit and ties it tie and heads off to that staid and boring enterprise software world of yesteryear. The Innojam proved that if SAP wants to unleash gamification as one of its next waves of innovation, it will have yet another army to march across the Rubicon. Gamification may prove to be as strong an innovation play as SAP has ever made, and that’s saying a lot.

On-demand Market Maturity and the User Experience: Salesforce, Workday, and Microsoft Show How to Get it Right

The week before Labor Day was an on-demand trifecta, a perfect storm of theory and practice on what the brave new world of on-demand software and services can and will evolve to in the coming years. It was the week of Dreamforce and the maturation of Chatter, the week that Workday hosted a group of influencers and, among other things, showed off a pretty cool iPad app, and it was the week that I decided to test drive Microsoft’s Office 365 and learned to live in the cloud happily thereafter. Not bad for the last week of summer.

The juxtaposition of these three topics isn’t just a matter of convenience for a blogger whose blogging backlog is measured in months. What struck was what these three events said about the maturity of an on-demand market that has been until this year dominated by an excess of wishful thinking about how the new technologies, work styles, and business models endemic to the hype curve of on-demand would translate into the real world – that staid and conservative workplace that we hipsters in Sillycon Valley tend to gloss over in our excitement over our new cool toys.

Looking at Chatter as part and parcel of a real business processes, Workday using the visual metaphor of the iPad to make on-demand workforce management an intuitive, interactive experience, and using Office 365 to greatly facilitate my multi-device, multi-location, almost-always-on work world made it clear that on-demand’s greatest contribution to our lives isn’t the simplistic notion of the “end of software” or that everything IT suddenly switches from from capex to opex , or even that IT resources can now be allocated in a completely elastic, transparent matter.

The real revolution of on-demand will be a combination of two factors: the first, which I’ve written about extensively in the past, will entail the development of new applications and services that simply could never be developed in the pre-on-demand world for love nor money.

The second, which my last week of summer experiences really brought home, is that on-demand – aided by tablets and other mobile devices, and benefiting from more than a decade of practical and impractical use – is revolutionizing the technology-based experiences of users and in the process vastly expanding the user base of technology. And it’s doing so by blending the old and the new, the stuff we’ve always done and the stuff we’ve dreamed – when we knew how – of doing one day.

These new user experiences are both dramatic and subtle, depending on the use case and the degree of revolutionary or evolutionary change – intended or unintended – that the on-demand software is now bringing to the table. Take Chatter/Workday: being able to approve a workflow-driven HR request inside a Chatter stream looks like such an obviously essential  function that if you didn’t know that this was new and cool you would have just assumed that had always been possible.

Or, more to the point – in an ideal world you wouldn’t have bothered with a tool like Chatter unless it had this functionality: the notion that activity streams auto-magically enhance real business processes was a key part of the above-mentioned wishful thinking that characterized the hype phase of social, on-demand software. And Chatter-as-workflow-enhancer fits both of my criteria for being part of the revolution of on-demand: net new functionality you couldn’t deliver for love nor money in the old on-prem world, with a revolutionary user experience to boot. And hidden inside the value of this net-new cool stuff is solid grounding in the past: those old tried and true business processes that need to get done regardless of the newness or coolness of the toys we have to do our jobs with.

I had a similar epiphany playing with Workday’s new iPad app: you almost have to ask why anyone would bother to rethink HRMS and human capital management without building such an app and deploying it on a platform like the iPad. Of course, this is a management-level app, meaning that much of the hairy, hard work of managing a workforce isn’t intended to be in this app (no more than the hairy, hard work of the enterprise is intended to be done in Chatter, BTW). But when you think back to Larry Ellison’s famous epiphany in 1997 that his company’s HRMS system was unable to answer the simple question of how many people actually worked at Oracle, it’s clear that if Larry asked the question today there’d be an app for that, and it would look like the one I tested from Workday. Again – cool new functionality in service of a better way to do our day-to-day jobs.

While Salesforce and Workday are using on-demand to  change the look and feel of the user  experience, Office 365 is using on-demand to maintain a familiar desktop user experience while fundamentally altering the usability of that experience.  It wasn’t easy for me to reach this stage at first – O365 suffers from a lack of concise documentation on how to migrate from an existing desktop Office experience to the O365 version.  It’s the classic backwards compatibility problem that has dogged Microsoft since the dawn of time: if you want to move your desktop Office environment to  O365, you have to not only run a confusing gauntlet of miss-matched documentation, but you’re largely left on your own to discover what the brave new world of O365 means to your workday once you throw the switch.

To be fair, the backwards compatibility problem of O365 exists precisely because it is replicating an existing work model in the cloud, unlike Chatter, which is creating a net-new user experience from the ground up, or Workday, which is deliberately trying to create a new HR metaphor. But Microsoft could, and should do better at showing how the net-new blends with the old to create a pretty impressive on-demand experience.

That experience is primarily defined by the use of an  on-demand Exchange Server to synchronize Outlook’s email, calendar and contact list with any online device that can talk to an Exchange server. The synchronization works so well and with so many devices that the result is a degree of usability that, again, seems to be exactly what all the hype about on-demand has always been about: access from any device, seamless synchronization between devices, and  largely seamless synchronization between the day to day of the work world and the hope and promise of the on-demand world. The result is a degree of connectivity between devices and those key elements of Office that has revolutionized how this road warrior wages war. It’s not about a net-new metaphor, nor about completely altering how I do my day to day: it’s about using the cloud to make what I do better. Much much better.

It would be unfair to the rest of the on-demand market to say that Salesforce, Workday, and Microsoft O365 are the archetypes of the phenomena of net-new functionality and new user experiences that enhance existing business processes. Clearly the phenomena have been in the market for some time, and both have many progenitors. But the fact that the on-demand market pioneer (Salesforce), the on-demand market fast-follower (Workday), and an old-line on-premise laggard whom many have wrongly written off (Microsoft) can all make an impressive showcase for what is not just to come in on-demand but what is here and now makes the end of summer 2011 a watershed for the market. With the promise of much much more to come.

HP v. Oracle: the Itanium War Breaks into Open Court (updated)

Hewlett-Packard followed up its “demand letter” of last week with a lawsuit seeking a halt to Oracle’s de-support of HP’s Itanium-based servers, injunctive relief against more mudslinging, and unspecified damages. The suit, filed in Superior Court in Santa Clara, California, is the latest in a nine-month battle that has transformed the two former partners into bitter enemies.

The case, according the formal complaint, “arises out of Oracle’s failure to live up to a clear and simple promise to work with HP in the interests of both companies’ mutual customers.” The complaint goes on to cite a litany of problems and “strong arm tactics” that Oracle has used in its now almost nine-month old battle against HP, one that has at times taken on an exceptional and, in my mind disturbing, personal tone (in particular, the attempts to subpeona HP CEO Léo Apotheker last fall in the Oracle vs. SAP lawsuit seemed in my opinion to have nothing to do with adjudicating the dispute and everything to do with trying to humiliate and tie down Apotheker just as he was assuming his new job.)

Among the allegations in the suit is the claim that Oracle is refusing to fix “critical bugs” in its Itanium versions, bugs that HP says it has a “duty to fix”. Instead, the suit claims, Oracle is trying to force these customers on to a new version of Oracle that will also necessitate a migration away from Itanium. The suit further claims that Oracle is coupling this de-support effort with a “below-cost” offer for a new Sun server to run the new Oracle software.

Oracle has since issued a statement claiming that HP and Oracle do not have a binding agreement to support Itanium, and that HP has known all along that Itanium will be de-supported. More on these claims in a moment.

While significant portions of the complaint, as sent to me by HP, are redacted – due to, I assume, the confidential nature of the contracts that HP and Oracle have relating to support and maintenance issues – it is clear that HP has chosen to respond in an aggressive manner to a set of actions by Oracle that, on the face of it, looks more mean-spirited than grounded in good business sense.

There are some who argue that there is a hard-nosed, technical reason not to support the Itanium market, due primarily to the perception that it is based on an outmoded design that is too expensive to run compared to new technologies. Even assuming that is true, the manner in which Oracle announced its de-support and the potential disruption that such an abrupt action could entail for their joint customers will, to be blunt, stick it to a significant number of customers whose only fault in the matter is that they are – heaven forfend – running an older hardware system. Imagine all the disruption one could cause if companies like Oracle tried to force customers to only run the latest and best technology, and did so largely so they could make trouble for a competitor.

And that’s really where I draw the line: The fact that this de-support is happening in the face of a bitter, personal vendetta against HP is what makes it much too customer-unfriendly for my taste. Even if there is no binding agreement for Oracle to support Itanium, dumping its dispute with HP on the backs of customers is wrong. This is why I think the actual EOL issue is a red herring, though I am still trying to find out why Oracle believes that Itanium is being end-of-lifed when Intel says it’s not. In defense of my confusion about Oracle’s allegations, here’s a quote from Intel’s website:

As a result of recent announcements from Oracle, Intel is taking this opportunity to directly reiterate its plans for the Itanium processor.  “Intel’s work on Intel Itanium processors and platforms continues unabated with multiple generations of chips currently in development and on schedule,” said Paul Otellini, president and CEO of Intel Corporation “We remain firmly committed to delivering a competitive, multi-generational roadmap for HP-UX and other operating system customers that run the Itanium architecture.”  Poulson is Intel’s next generation 32nm 8 core based Itanium chip, and is on track to more than double the performance of the existing Tukwila architecture.   Kittson is an officially committed roadmap product for Itanium beyond Poulson and is also in active development.  

There are many details of this suit that still need to see the light of day, including more on the confidential sections and their relevance to the companies’ joint customers. But at a minimum it lends further insight into how the new HP wants to be seen in the market. By taking on one of the most legally aggressive companies in Silicon Valley, HP is sending a signal that playing the chump to Oracles’ legal and personal attacks is apparently not an option.

A Look at HP’s Discover Conference: The Future Gets Closer

The show was relatively modest for the number one technology vendor, but it’s safe to say that Hewlett-Packard’s recent Discover user conference met its most important goal: showcasing the continuing evolution of a new strategy around its key enterprise and consumer markets that played to the strengths of the company’s current capabilities and aligned well with the vision of its new leadership.

In the end, while not billed as such, Discover was clearly the latest opportunity for HP to float its new strategy to its customers and test that strategy – and therefore this new overall vision – in front of its most important audience. While the equity markets continue to scratch their heads in confusion, it’s clear that, based on my conversations with customers, these early tests of a vast and unfolding strategy are earning top scores.

That new leadership is not only being tested on the technology and product front, but also on the political and legal front. With the cut-off-your-nose announcement by Oracle that it was de-supporting Itanium-based systems, HP Discover was also an opportunity to see how HP planned to respond to the kind of shenanigans that are making Oracle look silly and frivolous – if not a little scary – in the eyes of its critics.

The result was a well-orchestrated one-two punch back that, in the opinion of many (Dennis Howlett and Rob Enderle seem to concur) has the potential for turning the incoming Itanium attack by Oracle into a serious, self-inflicted wound. Unless Oracle does something about it.

First, HP lined up a top Intel executive, Kirk Skaugen, to run through a presentation to the Discover audience that included a clearly stated roadmap for Itanium. Lo and behold, it turns out that Itanium is strategic and has a future at Intel and HP. Of course, apparently everyone but Larry Ellison knew that (even Mark Hurd should have been in the know), but it was nice to see the roadmap clearly and unequivocally spelled out to the audience.

Then, HP unleashed its lawyers and sent Oracle a nasty-gram in the form of a demand letter. The letter, really a pre-cursor to a legal fight, claims that Oracle and HP have existing contractual agreements that require Oracle to continue to support Itanium. The letter demands that Oracle honor those agreements.

The letter has two impacts. The first is that it places HP squarely on the side of its customers, many of whom are both incredibly unhappy at being played by Oracle as part of its “get HP” campaign as well as scared of facing down Oracle’s massive and aggressive legal team by themselves in a one-to-one fight. Having HP offer to throw the first punch on behalf of its customers is a nice, clean, customer-friendly act.

The second impact is that the letter actually gives Oracle a semi-gracious way out of an embarrassing mistake. They don’t even have to say they are backing down because HP told them they should, they can simply announce they are changing their minds, and then issue the following statement:

Dear Itanium customers,

“With today’s announcement, we are giving customers the best of both worlds – more value from their existing hardware, which we plan to support indefinitely, and an option to upgrade to future technologies, if customers have a business case to do so.”

I personally think Mark Hurd would be a good one to add his John Hancock to the statement.

While this looks like a lot of crow to swallow, the truth is this kind of crow tastes delicious when seasoned with enough customer good will. Oracle, in fact, knows quite well the recipe for the sauce: they whipped up a big batch back in 2006 when they announced their Applications Unlimited plan, which in a similar vein promised never-ending support for a set of products (PeopleSoft, JDE, and later Siebel, among others) that Oracle had threatened to de-support in the muscular aftermath of the company’s acquisition spree.

That’s why the above statement might look familiar to anyone who has followed Oracle’s strategic gyrations: it’s a close paraphrase of the statement from former Oracle co-CEO Charles Phillips on the announcement of the company’s Applications Unlimited strategy in April, 2006.

This is hardly the only example of Oracle dining on crow, and, to their extreme credit (and this I mean with no sarcasm whatsoever), admitting failure and moving on is one of Oracle’s greatest strengths. As a 25-year Oracle watcher, the list of mistakes that the company has managed to move beyond is impressive: desktop apps in the 80s, many failed versions of Oracle Financials in the 90s, network PCs, Oracle CRM, and on and on.

The Itanium kerfuffle is another one of those moments, and HP’s letter actually gives Oracle an out that it should take if it wants to keep its relations with the 140,000 joint HP/Oracle customers on an even keel.

Meanwhile, back at the conference…..

While HP was offering Oracle a way out of its own mess, HP was also bolstering its new strategy along four key axes. Here’s my brief summary:

Converged infrastructure strategy. The strategy in a nutshell is this: HP is offering a customer-choice smorgasbord of hardware and software designed to support whatever IT scenarios a modern customer could possibly wish for. To this end HP is deploying an impressive array of computing, networking, and storage devices that can serve as a platform for a mix of on-premise and on-demand functionality. On top of the hardware HP can support industry leading virtualization technologies and deliver these capabilities in advanced data centers (including a pretty amazing, state-of-the-art, energy efficient turnkey data center.) These capabilities in turn support multiple deployment models, including dedicated appliances for messaging, data warehousing, and BI, as well as hybrid/mix and match cloud and on-premise systems.

Cloud strategy: HP demoed and otherwise discussed a number of its key cloud assets, including its CloudSystem management system. The demo of CloudSystem was impressive: a point-and-click interface for defining, configuring, and deploying an application or service-specific cloud instance that includes applications, operating system, database, web server, hardware, virtualization, network, security, etc. The instance is stored in a catalogue and can be pointed at any combination of on-premise and on-demand resources, appliances and non-HP hardware included. Against this functional backdrop, HP Finance announced $2 billion in financing for its future cloud customers.

Software and advanced analytics: HP showed off its growing analytics chops in a couple of ways. The 60-day old Vertica acquisition got some front and center action at Discover, and, while it’s clear that Vertica is going to butt heads with other similar advanced analytics platforms (SAP’s Hana being the best example) there’s plenty of runway in the big data market for Vertica and Hana to make a go of it. HP also showcased its  IT Performance suite, and demoed an analytics dashboard with over 50 KPIs on IT performance that demoed extremely well (and kudos to software exec Marge Breya for doing a live demo, something that HP isn’t exactly famous for doing.) More importantly, the analytics platform and its KPIs represent a jumping off point for a broad range of KPI-driven analytics from HP in coming months.

Security: It’s been a great month for the security business – nothing like massive data breaches being reported on a daily basis to provide the backdrop for pitching a strong security story. So having the ArcSight folks on stage to show off how prescient this acquisition has been in driving a strong security message from HP was a big plus.

Finally, there was the announcement that the HP Touchpad will come out in a couple of weeks. This not only takes some pressure off my wife as to what to get me for my birthday (assuming I can get her to read this post), it signals the beginning of a wave of consumer-side announcements that will be highly strategic to HP’s consumer/enterprise bridge strategy. The Touchpad announcement will be followed sometime later in the year by the Pre 3 release, HP’s best shot at taking on the Apple and Android markets. Whereupon HP will have the market wherewithal to start talking about what 100 million WebOS devices will mean for customers, developers, consumers, the enterprise, and those fussy equity markets as well.

That discussion about WebOS and the convergence of the consumer and the enterprise promises to be a significant one. At Discover the veil was further lifted on an emerging enterprise strategy that is looking better and more defensible with each announcement. But only when the role of WebOS and the consumer side of the business become better known and understood will the full force of Léo Apotheker’s new vision for HP see the light of day.

From what I saw this week in terms of both the enterprise strategy and the WebOS strategy, that convergence will be well worth the wait.