Ellison: Would you buy soap from this man?

How far is too far for Larry Ellison?
Larry Ellison could sell soap (and I'm not talking the Simple Object Access Protocol kind) to his own mother.

I know the photo-op-hungry Ellison is the second-richest guy in the world. But, during my first stint covering Oracle's annual user conference, I still found myself stunned by the movie-star mystique enveloping Oracle's CEO.

I was nearly trampled as I attempted to join the flood of 6,000-plus Oracle OpenWorld conference attendees flocking to hear Ellison's words of wisdom on Tuesday at San Francisco's Moscone Center. You'd think this was a Bill Gates Comdex keynote or something!

CEO stardom is an odd concept, but I guess every industry needs a little glamour. And founders and CEOs of software companies come to represent, for good or ill, their respective companies. Jobs is Apple. Gates is Microsoft. Ellison, who founded Oracle (orcl) way back in 1977, is Oracle.

Given this simplistic state of the world, it's amazing to me that Teflon-CEO Ellison still manages to command so much awe and respect.

This is the guy who expects the residents of San Jose to tolerate his jet-landing whims. An executive who gets caught with his hands in Microsoft lobbying group's trashcans and is darn proud of it. A leader who plays fast and loose with product promises and leaves his lieutenants and PR folks to clean up the mess.

During his keynote and follow-on press conference to the Oracle user faithful this week, Ellison remained true to form. Ellison had no qualms about telling attendees that Oracle knows best.

Don't worry your pretty little heads over product choice and configuration, he said. We're taking our 75 products and bundling them into two. And we're working with server hardware vendors like Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems to go one better and bundle our software right into their appliance platforms.

Wait a second. Didn't mainframe maker IBM get slapped and shackled by the Department of Justice for bundling proprietary operating systems and hardware? And isn't Microsoft in hot water over integration/bundling? Have the rules changed in the past couple of decades? Or does Ellison live in a world where different rules apply?

Rules of any kind seem to be a concept Ellison just doesn't grok. Take his latest $1 million challenge, outlined in a full-page ad in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal. Rip out your IBM or Microsoft database and replace with Oracle's two products (the 8i database and 9i application server), and if your Web app doesn't run at least three times faster, you collect a cool million.

Better read that fine print before you try to outsmart Ellison. Even if you win, you still owe Oracle for the products and consulting dollars you spend to convert your site. And then, there's that nasty little gag order, specifying contestants need to get Oracle's permission before they discuss their experiences.

Sure, Ellison's $1 million challenge is basically a publicity stunt. But pretending that integrating 75 features into two products makes things simpler and cheaper for the customer is a disservice.

When Microsoft bundled previously standalone products into NT Server and Windows 2000, its critics were quick to cry foul. Is Oracle deserving of similar criticism? Has Ellison gone too far this time? TalkBack below and let me know.

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