Is Oracle becoming an 'evil empire?'

Summary:Oracle's pursuit of Google for alleged patent violations has opened the door to accusations of Oracle as 'evil.' Is it true and if true are customers allowing that to happen?

In the late 1990's and early 2000's Microsoft was the company we all loved to hate as it fought and lost claims of monopoly. The mid 2000's was the period where Google's 'Don't be evil' mantra came back to haunt it. As we move into the 2010's is Oracle picking up that dubious mantle? If so I wonder about the potential impact on the enterprise landscape.

The Oracle v Google lawsuit has set many tongues wagging, mine included. At stake are issues that polarize developers, buyer and sell side advocates but which speak to broad issues of importance in enterprise land.

The financial dimension

If we focus on the purely financial aspects, some see the lawsuit as a logical development of Oracle's long term strategy: acquire and leverage assets as best it can. Viewed through that lens, it makes perfect sense and is to be admired. Oracle is not a charitable organization but accountable to its stakeholders, which often appears to be narrowly defined as representing its shareholders. They rightly demand a return for their investment and Oracle does all it can to avoid disappointment. Unfortunately, life rarely comes in a single dimension.

In the post(?) recessionary 2010's, many are questioning the definition of 'stakeholder.' (PDF link) For my part, I take the position that stakeholders should actively embrace the concept of sustainable business but even then definitions become troublesome (PDF link ) when considered alongside the current fashion for CSR. In IT developer organizations I take that to mean a demonstrable commitment to reinvestment as part of a relentless focus on delivering customer value.

Reinvestment and customer value. Those are terms requiring careful definition and even then are debatable. Oracle says that its financial results reflect its focus on customer service. But does it? If you agree with Bob Evans, then Oracle has an unsustainable business. He takes the position that so much of Oracle's profit depends on its maintenance revenue stream and that it is playing a dangerous game of 'chicken:'

...it is also possible that Oracle customers feel that at this time they don't have viable options to switch away from Oracle, and that while they are frustrated by the 22% fees and do not feel they're getting good value in return, the lack of options is forcing them to bide their time.

From many many conversations with CIOs, I believe this latter scenario is the real story. If that is indeed the case, then Oracle's playing a dangerous game of "Chicken," hoping that no viable alternatives emerge in the near term while dawdling its way along with its own leisurely cloud initiatives, which are most unlikely to provide the fantastic financial returns that the on-premise model currently does.

Oracle could easily counterbalance any revenue hitch by taking its foot off the marketing gas. Yet the IT industry seems dependent upon the relationship between revenue and marketing as a way of driving long term maintenance. It's a Catch-22 with no apparent get out of jail card.

My erstwhile colleague Vinnie Mirchandani regularly bemoans the fact the enterprise IT industry seems set on a course that puts less store on genuine innovation designed to improve value and more on pleasing Wall Street. He views the drifting down of R&D and stubbornly high GS&A numbers as evidence. It is a point well made. However, Oracle scores high marks for its financial probity, something few other tech vendors seem capable of matching. One argument might be: go after the slouches rather than pouring scorn on Oracle. I'd much rather Oracle set the bar higher by accelerating innovation. The long term wins would be huge for everyone.

Vinnie will also tell you about the cost of printing as evidence of how customers are being taken for a ride that makes the price of perfume or champagne look cheap. Not that it seems to make any difference to broad buyer behavior. But more of that later.

The roll up power game

Nothing more graphically illustrates Oracle's acquisition history than the following graphic - courtesy of Stephen Jannise.

It demonstrates how Oracle has used its financial muscle and massive cash flow to roll up large parts of the IT industry as part of a broader strategy that harks back to the days of Tom Watson's IBM and the single stack play. Is this 'evil?'

History teaches that when IBM tried to play the stack game it came unstuck. The same need not be true for Oracle. In IBM's day, it was the global Big Dog that got too close to the firepit of monopoly regulation. Oracle will argue that despite its acquisitions, the market across each of the stack categories remains competitive. It will also argue that if it was acting in monopolistic fashion then regulators would not allow it to pursue its course.

I regard that last argument as flimsy. I have yet to see any evidence that regulators have considered Oracle as a whole, preferring to view each transaction on isolated merits.

It is only after the event that things become clear and of course by then it is too late. Check this alleged leaked memo from Oracle about its intentions for Solaris. The key point: From a business perspective, the purpose of our investment in Solaris engineering is to drive our overall server business, including both SPARC and x64, and to drive business advantages resulting from integration of multiple components in the Oracle portfolio. This includes combining our servers with our storage, our servers with our switches, Oracle applications with Solaris, and the effectiveness of the service experience resulting from these combinations. All together, Solaris drives aggregate business measured in many billions of dollars, with significant growth potential.

Anyone doubt that Oracle has a clear domination strategy? Of itself, that doesn't make Oracle 'evil.' What is worrisome is the presumption that a stack play IS the best choice. We can have a 'best of suites' and 'best in class' discussion all day long but when one provider controls enough of the stack to make a persuasive buying argument then you have to wonder whether competition just took a dump while vendor lock in just scored a winning goal.

Does it matter? That depends on a range of factors. Examples include:

  • If one vendor's control is soaking up a large chunk of your IT budget then you have to ask whether the risk of their applying pressure in one direction might have a knock on effect on another?
  • What happens if they fall behind when you need to accelerate technology change?
  • What happens if they fail to deliver on technology upon which you have made plans?

If you are in the camp that is prepared to make the one size fits all judgment call and your vendor doesn't deliver as you anticipated then you might well consider them 'evil.'

Oracle Fusion has been promised for so long you have to wonder if it will ever be delivered. In 2009 we were promised 100 days of innovation. Some of us sarcastically parsed that as 100 days of press releases. Looking back, I don't recall 100 days of anything substantial beyond the middleware announcements. Rumor has it that Oracle Open World will see the announcement of an imminent release of Fusion HR but there are big questions around capability and what that means for eventual PeopleSoft replacement for those customers thinking of moving on.

Open source anyone?

When Oracle announced its intentions to buy Sun plenty of people expressed concern about the future of Java as an open source language. Did it stop anyone from continuing to write Java code? Of course not. Is Oracle's future tied to Java? You bet. Now that Open Solaris has been canned, many will be wondering (again) what's next for the open source chop.

Whatever anyone might think of Oracle it has been careful not to directly antagonize the open source community. Or has it? Returning to the Oracle/Google lawsuit, it has got people head scratching and thinking that open source is under attack.

Stephen O'Grady knows a thing or two about open source. He also knows a thing or two about licensing issues. His exhaustive examination of the lawsuit concludes with:

Whatever the real reason, this is a surprising decision even for a firm as aggressive as Oracle. The only thing more surprising is how quickly it turned Google – excoriated around the web for their questionable net neutrality proposal with Verizon – back into the good guys. Even if you speculate about differences in Oracle’s evaluations of its own assets – that Oracle believes that Java has peaked in popularity, for example, and that this is a one time opportunity to cash in on an asset that must, inevitably, decline – the calculus of this move fails. Nothing in Oracle’s product roadmaps hint at such a realization. Nor would a one time windfall, however large, be sufficient to offset the costs of a significant decline in Oracle’s Java related products.

As for predictions, I’ll make only one: whoever wins will also lose. This suit is going to negatively impact – probably substantially – Java adoption. The enterprise technology landscape is more fragmented by the day, as it transitions from .NET or Java othodoxy to multi-language heterogeneity. Oracle’s suit will accelerate this process as it introduces for the first time legal uncertainty around the Java platform.

And therein lies the rub..."whatever the real reason" At this very early stage it is hard to know and Oracle isn't telling. It could play the good guy by making its intentions clear but it is the opaqueness that gets everyone fretting rather than the direction. I've tried several times to get Oracle to speak but it chooses not to do so. At least not with me. That should not be a surprise since I would almost certainly take a partisan position where it would prefer objectivity.

Anything that Oracle does which is perceived to be an attack upon open source will get tarred as 'evil' but would enterprise organizations care? That's an interesting question.

Last week I was asked whether there was much demand for open source databases in SAP environments. Not as far as I can tell. SAP entered into an alliance with Oracle a long time ago that is thought to provide Oracle with over $1 billion in database revenue each year. That's significant. In talking with end user organizations three things emerge:

  • The investments in database are too large to rip out
  • Who will support an open source offering?
  • Are open source databases sufficiently mature for us to risk our business upon them?

The use of data is so important to business that once an investment path is taken it is extraordinarily difficult to consider alternatives without exposing high cost and risk. Now that Oracle 'owns' MySQL would it open a support business for that database as it did with Red Hat Linux? The short view would be no unless it fancied opening the door to validating MySQL as capable of running Oracle Apps in any environment and potentially eviscerating its main income stream. The long view might see a different tack where Oracle could lower cost to a new class of mid-range customer. On the maturity question, it all depends. For the large enterprise buyer, Oracle DB or SQL Server are almost no brainers. That doesn't make Oracle any more 'evil' than Microsoft. It just means organizations have voted with their wallets.

So Oracle's not 'evil' then?

To say that Oracle is a tough competitor is a bit like saying Mt Everest is tall. It has set the tone for much of what defines the Silicon Valley business ethos. As an outsider, I find that at once both thrilling and uncomfortable. I am thrilled that there is so much invention and innovation arising out of the Valley but am less comfortable with Oracle's tactics. Too often the company seems bruising and unnecessarily aggressive. The general tone of conversation with customers suggest it creates a level of discomfort that impacts customers' ability to sensibly negotiate deals. On the maintenance issue there is no negotiation as far as Oracle is concerned. Hands up those buyers that think that's a great idea?

Infoworld asks the 'evil' question in the following terms:

Such evildoing rivals a monster round of Goldman Sachs bonuses. But does Oracle in the archvillain role have legs? Outside of the tech world, nobody hears much about Oracle apart from its acquisitions: PeopleSoft, Siebel, BEA, Sun. Otherwise, Oracle keeps a pretty low profile for a $113 billion company.

Messing with the popular Android consumer play changes that a bit, particularly if the lawsuit drags on for years in the public eye. And there's plenty more, beginning with the Sun acquisition and subsequent brutal layoffs. That's part of a pattern: Around Silicon Valley Oracle is known as the Bermuda Triangle of predators, devouring all sorts of companies with promising technologies and being less than gentle with their personnel. Throw in a combative CEO, exorbitant software maintenance fees, and a hardball company culture, and might we have a winner?

Infoworld thinks not, believing that Oracle plays in a barren category that's no longer that interesting or stuffed full of Big New Ideas. I'm sure that will please the execs at Oracle no end. However, assuming that 'evilness' does not apply to less fashionable categories is a logically flawed argument.

Martin Luther King once said: "He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it. " In IT terms, too many times customers fail to stand up for their rights and then wonder how things went wrong. When we call out Oracle for one thing or another we should at least recognize that customers are often complicit in allowing the company to get away with something we see as distasteful.

When SAP tried to impose a 30% price rise in the teeth of the recession, some of us protested loudly and frequently. That drew attention to the problem and made us a thorn in SAP's side. But it was only when customers realized they have genuine bargaining chips that things started to change. It's a lesson from which all large software companies should learn.

Topics: Oracle, Microsoft

About

Dennis Howlett has been providing comment and analysis on enterprise software since 1991 in a variety of European trade and professional journals including CFO Magazine, The Economist and Information Week. Today, apart from being a full time blogger on innovation for professional services organisations, he is a founding member of Enterpri... Full Bio

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