Will there be a winner in Oracle v SAP?

As the Oracle v SAP trial lumbers on we will now see what SAP is about in the post Apotheker era. Will it be enough to convince?
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor on

Oracle's showboating is over in the Oracle v SAP trial and it seems most of the media has gone home for the time being. The fun and drama that didn't quite ensue from Larry Ellison's appearance has given way to the inevitable horse trading over the quantum of damages SAP will have to fork over.

While I have not been there in person my occasional 'spies' have been keeping me up to speed on events inside the courthouse. This is after all a PR exercise of monumental proportions. I'm less interested in the actuality of the case and more in the nuances around presentation. Why?

In many ways, the Oracle v SAP trial is a mirror of what goes on in the real world of enterprise applications software and especially between these two companies. On the one hand you have Oracle telling the world how broad and deep it is and how it deserves to be paid top dollar. On the other hand you have at times the arrogance of a non-US software company blinded by its own success. But in truth this is becoming a test for SAP of what it will be like under the relatively new leadership of co-CEO's Jim Snabe and Bill McDermott.

If you trawl through the digital leftovers on this case it is easy to see what the Silicon Valley digerati think. They want entertaining and often assume that it is the same for readers. See this from Forbes:

Oracle v. SAP has all the makings of an industrial espionage flick -- a trash-talking CEO, a star litigator and high-profile witnesses. In sleepy Silicon Valley, those twists and turns have captivated everyone.

That's fun for the 'inside baseball' crowd and I suppose it is always interesting to see industry titans making idiots of themselves in a courtroom where the trial lawyer's real purpose is to expose weakness. But Forbes is talking to itself if it thinks 'everyone' cares about this trial. Information Week gets closer but like us all, cannot resist editorializing. In a long winded but detailed report that centers on expert testimony, it says:

When five weeks of trial proceedings end and three years of work winds down, 8 jurors will produce a single number, Oracle will be a little wealthier and a shamed SAP will manage to endure without missing a payroll. But the dark shadow of Oracle v. SAP will lurk indefinitely.

SAP's acquiescence is practically complete, having accepted both vicarious and contributory liability for the copyright infringement of its former TomorrowNow unit.

[My emphasis added.]

Elsewhere I have a sneaking feeling CIO.com has been drooling at the prospect of crafting something suitably satirical about how SAP has successively bent over and greased up to Oracle's incessant probing around liability. (sic)

When we get to the nuts and bolts of the expert witness testimony we soon discover that numbers are an ephemeral thing and that at the end of the day enterprisey people will sometimes appear to pull said numbers out of thin air looking to see where the customer will say 'yes' and pony up. At times this can take on an air of comedy:

By the time [SAP] attorney Bob Mittelstaedt was finished, Meyer [Oracle witness] probably would have equivocated about what his name was. Not since Bill Clinton has a witness parried so clumsily. Even a jury made comatose by talk of Enterprise Resource Planning and automated download bots had to suddenly realize that Meyer's "expertise" extended into covering his ass.

Fun isn't it and not a million miles away from how negotiations can go. But now we are getting to the part where SAP has its say and I expect we'll hear an altogether different tone. In fact we already have. According to MSNBC:

McDermott [co-CEO SAP] apologized after an exchange with Oracle attorney David Boies, who asked him if SAP had ever apologized for the copyright infringement. McDermott said no. Boies asked him if he would like to do it in the courtroom.

McDermott appeared calm on the stand and often gazed at the eight-member jury during his testimony.

I can imagine Bill McDermott doing that. He is the consummate salesman who, as I've said before, can make sales of high end fridges to eskimos and then make them feel glad they paid the premium. If you're in a session with Mr McDermott, you need all your wits about you and some smelling salts to bring you round from the heady perfume of good karma he masterfully deploys. But beyond the the theatrics what you are seeing is a counterpoint to the 'old guard' at SAP. As has been said in many meetings I have attended: 'This is not your mother's/grandmother's SAP.'

There is a certain truth in that. Over the last year I have seen a modest but perceptible shift in the way SAP conducts itself. The whiff of entitlement is still there but SAP is learning that its sharpest minds (and critics) from within its enormous ecosystem are also its most powerful advocates. Treat them right and they'll back you even if that sometimes comes with a dose of castor oil. For the geeks in the reading crowd check this piece: by Thorsten Franz: Kiss of Death for Web Dynpro Java – The Follow-Up Questions. Can you imagine a similarly worded critique appearing anywhere in an Oracle sponsored digital property? More important, Thorsten's polemic kicked off a critical debate about the future of Java in the SAP world that has yet to be finally played out.

At the risk of sounding like a self important and pompous ass who's been sucking a bit too much SAP Kool-Aid, I can say with certain knowledge SAP and its community count as successful the start of outcomes surrounding the SAP certification debate. I am confident you will see important change that positively impacts the whole of SAP, its partners and especially its customers.

Later in the trial I expect to hear from SAP expert witnesses that have done their homework in excruciating detail. I know one of them personally. In contrast to the career ambulance chasing hangers on, this person comes to the table with genuine experience, integrity but above all clean hands. In putting this person on the stand, SAP is taking an enormous risk because they will speak with a truthfulness born out of genuine conviction to get at the right number. Just as I am sure McDermott mesmerised the jury with contrition, this witness at least will come across as honest and fair.

These are the things that matter because they demonstrate at once an SAP that does its sales job in a masterful way while unplugging what have, for many years, been deaf ears. It stands in sharp contrast to the testosterone fumes that emanate elsewhere in enterprise sales land and from SAP's past intransigence over software maintenance fees.

Will buyers take note? I don't know. I hope so because in the post trial period, SAP will need to burnish the  mantle of respectability it is trying out for size in the Oakland courtroom. Or be damned.

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