Oracle OpenWorld 2013: A conundrum solved

For years I couldn't resolve how and why Oracle approached the market so differently than other major apps providers. Finally I have. They aren't truly an apps provider - at least not primarily.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

Year after year, unlike any other vendor, at least for me, Oracle has been a true puzzle. I have had a hard time figuring them out.

They are brilliant technologists in many ways, and have some great and smart people in their various divisions and to some extent, are doing amazing things. But, like so many hardcore technologists, big or small, they are a marketing dinosaur most of the time. They typically focus on the things that they think that their target market wants to hear and actually, as a result, often ignores both their target market and their potential other markets.

As is always reflected OpenWorld, they think that the bits and bytes of technology are something that their base – current and future wants to hear. It isn’t. Even CIOs these days are looking for something else. But we’ll get to that. 

Regardless, they have more than 400,000 customers and the bulk of them are perfectly happy with what they are getting so Oracle can at least upsell and cross sell to their existing customer base, which is not chump change for revenue.

So my conundrum has always been how can a company that has normally been so technically excellent and that has built a customer base of 400,000 or more, miss the mark so badly when it comes to their approach to customers? Is this even possible?

Well, I’ve solved my conundrum.

OpenWorld 2013: the conference

But before I tell you how I’ve resolved this, let’s talk about the conference itself – Oracle OpenWorld. As you know if you’ve read any post I wrote about any conference I’ve been at in the last 10 years, I always emphasize the importance of these major events.

The attendance, the presentation of the corporate vision, the messaging, the quality of the event’s “lifestyle” which broadly defined means how good an individual attendee feels being at the event due to the programs, ambiance, opportunities to socialize, fun, and the content presented, all matter a great deal. It sends a message that resonates for the entire year following the conference until the next one.

These conferences are watched by financial and industry analysts, by competitors and potential customers, by partners, by the company’s employees and by the business world as a whole as indicators of the health going forward of the company and a peak at its perception of the future, which of course, matters.

Oracle OpenWorld 2013 as a conference was probably the best of the OpenWorlds I’ve been to in a long time and at the same time was marred by some of the same things that constantly damage and one error in judgment which became talked about throughout the technology industry.

Why the best? Because there were substantive presentations that had a clear outline of the vision, and the purpose and the approach that Oracle was taking and the investment they were making in things that matter to their likely and current customers. 

Why bad? Because at the same time, Oracle once again declined to talk about a true vision and mission for the company and its current and future direction and instead chose to, for the most part, do keynote addresses that did a disservice to its audiences – that were focused on the technicalities of the products.

For example, Larry Ellison’s first keynote was on how in-memory computing, Oracle style worked – with the uses of columns and rows, blah, blah, blah, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Almost lost in the technical minutiae, was that Oracle had created a brilliant in-memory architecture and product that was able to crunch 7 billion records a second and whose adoption by existing customers involved flipping a switch, without having to convert applications, architectures, platforms and machines.

Outcomes and business benefits were barely if ever discussed, though the brilliance of the in-memory architecture was inherently obvious, thank goodness.

The faux pas was one that became a brief Internet viral sensation. Larry Ellison decided to forgo his second keynote speech to be at the America’s Cup final race –won by the Oracle America team in a stirring fashion – after being down eight races to one.

While all the Larry haters used this as an opportunity to jump on him and hate him some more, that’s probably an overreaction. I think the way to think about it is that while it was actually very understandable what motivated him to do this, given his emotional (and financial) investment in the America’s Cup, it was an error in judgment to not present his keynote speech, because it seemed that he was thumbing his nose at 60,000 people who had take time out of their busy weeks and paid to come to a conference often from other countries to do things like hear him among others.

He owed them his respect by coming or at least making a virtual appearance with an apology through a live stream. That said, I don’t think he was being venal, I think he was caught in the emotion of the moment and did something that was plain stupid – an error in judgment.

Truthfully, personally, I don’t miss hearing him speak.

With all that brouhaha and kerfuffle and mischigas, the conference was still exceptionally well planned. There was (apologies here in advance, Oracle folks) a Dreamforce-y element to it, with big outdoor open spaces that people could hang out in and watch the speeches on big screen jumbotron like TVs. There was an open air (but powered) press tent, which had plenty of spaces with power to work or meet with whoever you were meeting. The analyst room was equally but differently well appointed.

You could get anywhere you had to go in about seven or eight minutes. Even though the mass food wasn’t that good, the ability to get it was well organized. The exhibition halls were clearly marked and easy to get around in, actually, something that salesforce could learn a lesson from.

From the analyst and press perspective, the press relations firms and analyst relations people were helpful and even solicitous and made sure that if you wanted to or needed to veer off schedule, it wasn’t seen as a big deal. Blanc and Otus, the outside PR firm that works with parts of Oracle, as always did an excellent job of supporting Oracle in managing the press and analyst “stuff.” Susie Penner, who’s program at Oracle is the one belong to, well, as she always does was extraordinary in her ability to both represent Oracle interests and be the advocate for those in her program simultaneously. 

All in all, problems notwithstanding, it was a worthwhile and well-done event, the best OpenWorld in years.

OpenWorld 2013: The report card

First, a hat tip to Ken Wincko of Dun and Bradstreet for the idea of naming this a report card. Perfect.

Now ta da, I’m going to introduce, with Oracle OpenWorld 2013, a conference scorecard where I score multiple facets of the conference with a letter grade. Since 2013 is drawing to a close, I’ll only be able to do this for Dreamforce and JiveWorld over the rest of the year, but next year, each and every conference I go to will be graded according to criteria I’ve developed. Then at the end of each year, I’ll do a comparative scorecard. This version is simple and not exactly where I want it to be, so I won’t compare it to anything. In fact, there will probably be more granular criteria for both Dreamforce and JiveWorld. 

So here is my first Conference Report Card. Consider this a work in progress. The one caveat is that since these conferences are too big to really get a complete insight, these grades are based on my observations and many, many conversations during the conference with attendees, analysts, partners and Oracle staff – enough to universalize and thus, give the grades confidently.


— In general the keynotes were overly technical and had little or no vision associated with them. Only he apps keynote gave any sense of the future. Teaching an audience how something works for 2 hours is not a keynote but better suited to a session.

General sessions

B- — Most had solid content though the presenters were a bit uneven. People got what they wanted from the sessions and that’s the best you can say for a session. General satisfaction.

Analyst and press relations

B+ — In general, an excellent job (especially the work of Susie Penner and Blanc and Otus), only marred by the general lack of one on one meetings for the analysts and press except in rare instances. That was mitigated by Susie Penner’s effort (I can’t speak for other programs) to get them set up upon request. On the whole, it was done very well.

Food quality (mass)

 What can you say about a sandwich and chips in a plastic tray? Its good enough but not particularly good.

Food quality (analyst and press rooms)

B- — The analyst room had decent food. The press room had fruit and drinks. Not bad, not great.

Exhibition hall

A- — Very nicely done with room in aisles to get around, large easy signs when it came to the aisle numbers. Oracle and SAP shine in this regard each year. Only minor weakness was lack of guidance for the hall outside the hall. Not much there. But a quibble only.

Crowd energy and involvement

C+ — People seemed bolstered by the conference but not electrified. It was a generally jovial environment though attendees were upset about the non-appearance of Larry Ellison for the second keynote and walked out.

Overall ambiance

B — There was a good feel to this conference – an Oracle sense of solidity and general satisfaction that was projected throughout the entire event.

Attendee support and service

B+ — There would be people on the street and available at key times throughout the event that not only could resolve problems for individuals but did an excellent job of keeping lines moving. When lines got heavy, more support people were put into service. All in all a great effort.

Overall grade

B- — Without the keynote failure, this was better than B-. But there was that keynote failure. 

That's it.

As I said earlier (somewhere up at the top of this thing), I solved my conundrum. I suppose the best way to explain this is the following. Now on to Oracle.

You know how Microsoft has decided to reinvent itself as a “devices and systems” company? Oracle is already and really always has been a “machines and database” company. This is what drives them. This is what they love. This is where they come from and travel to. This is how they sell and how they market. This is the context and the framework for everything they do. To be brutally honest with myself, I have say that their applications business, the part that of course interests me the most, is a secondary business for them – a small but significant percent of their revenue, but not in this company’s DNA as more than a few molecules in a strand of a chromosome. 

This was made clear by how little was said on the big stage about applications with the exception of David Vap’s keynote on the final day. For Oracle, applications serve a purpose – they are something that needed to be in their ecosystem in order to sell machines and databases, architecture and infrastructure to their customers. Their customers need software and services to run their businesses. Oracle wants to provide the machines with the apps on it for them.

Think about it. Last year, when Larry Ellison was discussing the cloud during his keynote, he announced…machines for the cloud (Exabyte and Exadata). This year, when he talked about in-memory computing, voila! A machine for that. For Oracle its not that there’s an app for that. There’s a box for that is their mantra. Deus ex machina.

Just to be clear, not only is there nothing wrong with that as an approach, I have nothing to say about it whether there is something wrong or not. This is how this immensely successful, and sometimes a bit too arrogant company does what it does. The arrogance comes because they are immensely successful. They can do without the arrogance. This year, they almost did.

If you see them as “machines and databases” then you see that they, unlike many other companies that they compete with, are still focused on IT and the CIO as their target audience.

But this is where their marketing triceratops appears in the clearing. They haven’t come to grips with the fact that the CIO’s role is changing, as is the IT department. The line of business guys are making the more IT related decisions than ever before (e.g. see the rise of the marketing technologist position) though not on the machines and databases, to Oracle’s defense. But whether or not there are going to be more machines and databases purchased is now resting more and more in the hands of those LOB folks, meaning its their needs being fulfilled, not the IT department’s. The LOB guys aren’t deciding which ones, though. Thank god.

Oracle needs to realign its marketing not necessarily targeting a different market, but around an outcome based approach to marketing. Stop selling the idea of something crunching 7 billion rows a second, as spectacular a technical achievement as it is. Start instead talking about the business value of that. What is the business benefit gained with something crunching 7 billion rows a second as opposed to, say, 3 billion rows a second? Is there value in something done in 1 second vs. 2.5 seconds? Will that make a business difference, create business value? Why? Market to this set of questions.

By the way, I’m only using the in memory numbers as a convenience to make a general point. It truly is a breathtaking technical achievement but ultimately if Oracle doesn’t market around the business value of their technical achievements, it will become “so what?” And for the most part, Oracle still doesn’t market this way.

Oracle applications, nonetheless

As little as it was broadcast, there is still a lot going on with Oracle applications but not in the way it has been over the past four or more years. Here are some observations that I think are worth considering.

  1. To reiterate and frame this, apps are not a real big focus for them at least in the context of machines and databases. Even the apps related keynote was relegated to the last full day. It was well received by both the crowd and analysts, but still seemed to be almost an afterthought – kind of in the vein of “we need to talk about apps so let’s do it at the end.”
    That said, there was a 90 minute CX session on day one with an overflowing crowd – hundreds of people with a keen interest in Oracle’s CX work. Of course, that was hundreds of 60,000, to keep it in proper perspective.
  2. Fusion seems to be dead or at least relegated to a corner for a timeout. There was little mention of Fusion at all. I checked with fellow influencers, to make sure that it wasn’t just my missing the sessions, even those who attended the sessions that should have spoken to Fusion on the big stage (not the technical sessions). The same held for them. In fact, Fusion hasn’t been part of Oracle’s app thrust for almost a year, given that two years ago it was just about given center stage at OpenWorld.
  3. Social applications — Social Relationship Management (SRM) — seems to be where they are going to put their money. They’ve put together a superb team headed up the excellent Meg Bear and such rock stars as Tara Roberts who is not only a longtime CRM industry veteran but might be one of the nicest people in the entire industry. She will be responsible (under Meg) for the product evolution of their acquisitions, Collective Intellect and Vitrue, which are the foundation for their SRM analytics and listening back and front ends – their engagement products, if you will.
    If what I saw rolls out any time soon, what they are doing with customer analytics especially, quite possibly will blow the doors of anything out there in the industry. I can’t say more yet – and a deeper dive is in the offing, but trust me, its worth your time to check it out when it hits the marketplace.
  4. CX – Customer Experience and the portfolio associated with it is what they are going to lead with when it comes to what was their CRM practice. CRM messaging is gone and barring something unforeseeable, will not return. For them, CRM is so over. That’s frankly a mistake, but not one that I think will damage them all that badly.
    That said, they are still selling CRM technology both independently and within their CX portfolio. They are still supporting new releases of Siebel, PeopleSoft, and their own Oracle CRM products. In addition they are touting CRM as part of their CX portfolio which consists of Eloqua, RightNow, Inquira, Endeca, Vitrue, Collective Intellect, ATG and Involver as far as the acquisitions go. These acquisitions from the last several years are being stitched together into a very capable competitive CRM+KM+SMM+Ecommerce portfolio with a CX-umbrella name.
    It’s by no means an integrated whole slam dunk yet, but it’s moving along at a good and what promises to be eventually successful clip despite the inevitable personnel and customer losses that come when these integrations are in progress.
  5. Eloqua is going to play a really important part in their apps strategy – such as it is. It is going to be the cornerstone of their more traditional marketing automation toolset and integrated with the more advanced social tools so that they can compete at the level of a Marketing Cloud with salesforce.com and with Adobe. This is a big deal because as Marc Benioff defined it, marketing clouds are the next billion dollar plus area for the larger players to make their money.
    Three of the Big 4 have made a marketing automation acquisition in the last year with Eloqua going to Oracle, ExactTarget/Pardot going to salesforce.com, Marketing Pilot going to Microsoft and of course Neolane going to Adobe. Only SAP hasn’t done so and at the moment, they are the ones that are lagging in this area. Oracle, with the Eloqua acquisition is being wise to give it a lot of room to play because it’s an excellent product – in fact it was a smarter and better acquisition than RightNow was respectively in customer service.
    There will be and is a lot to rebuild with personnel and customer losses that are inevitable, but Oracle’s investment here is well worth the time.

A little more on Machines and Databases and applications

For every new hardcore product like in memory computing, Oracle produces a big box to do something with it. This is how they roll. They are not going to be functioning like the other of the big 3 in the enterprise who are primarily software companies and will remain so. Oracle isn’t a software company. They produce software but only for the purposes of enabling the systems that they hope are Oracle database-driven and machine-enclosed. The Sun acquisition of 3 years ago in that regard is not only no surprise, but a pretty damned good move.

Think of it this way. Oracle has roughly 400,000 customers that they service. They are technologists who know how to make sure that their customers run smoothly. They see it as their job in life to make this happen.

What they are not is an apps company nor are they visionaries any more. Don’t get me wrong, they know how to adapt to trends – their SRM product suite is a testament to that. But what they do is basically adapt to trends by building solid technology to enable them.

Good for them. They are unique among the big providers, because they are the only machines and database based focused one. All the others are enterprise software and services. All that said, while they still can drive me crazy, I finally get them. Which helps - though their warts are still not beauty marks. They have things they need to fix. They have to refocus their marketing. They have to reduce the arrogance and address their customers’ needs and the needs of the market they are targeting. But they are often great at what they do produce and not many can say that. 

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