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Thoughts on Oracle Open World 2014

I’m not sure quite what to say about Oracle Open World 2014 that I didn’t already say in my tweet stream. That won’t stop me from trying, though. It’s my job, and it’s also fun trying to make a picture from all the jigsaw pieces we were handed.

There’s been a lot of talk about “the changing face of Oracle,” with efforts apparently being made to soften the notoriously hard-edged tech monolith’s public image. Whatever you may choose to make of it, there was certainly some of this attitude on display this past week. Not only were executives more numerous and available, they were more present—meaning they seemed to have real interest in sharing their plans with the public, and getting feedback from the 60,000 customers, partners and analysts in attendance. For some of them, this isn’t a change; Steve Miranda, EVP of applications development, has always been an exemplar of what a public-facing exec should be, and now that Meg Bear, group VP of Oracle Social Cloud, has joined the company, he’s not alone in that. You can keep your Safra Catz and Mark Hurd (as long as we can still use the puntastic “herding cats” imagery)—these are the sort of people I want to talk to, and who need to be heard.

Larry Ellison has stepped down as CEO, which should be news to nobody at this point. With him free to focus on technology (at least when he’s not doing chairman stuff), it feels like discussions about Oracle tech are going to be a lot more fun from now on. It’s clear that he likes talking about it, evangelizing, and tossing barbs at the competition, and I get the sense he will be less restrained now. While this means more opportunities for crotch-punching among all those industry leaders—as evidenced by the utter lambasting of SAP HANA this year, in front of the former SAP exec who championed it—I guess there’s the hope that it’ll feel less official coming from the chairman, CTO, and largest non-institutional shareholder.

Another factor is that Oracle is truly starting to embrace cloud computing as a fundamental part of their business. They’ve even stated that moving customers to the cloud is a matter of when, not if—though of course they also say that nobody will ever be forced to give up on-premises deployments. Nobody was forced to give up horses either, but how many people still ride?

The technology on display this year was fine. Nothing groundbreaking in my opinion, unless you happen to be a VAR, in which case you had better make sure the rug hasn’t just been pulled out from under you. Specifically, users now have the ability to move their Oracle apps to and from the cloud by more or less pushing a button or two, and those apps will be modernized and updated automatically, all without having to alter existing code. Furthermore, Oracle claims to have built social, mobile, and analytic support directly into the database, so adding those functions to apps should be much easier. If this works as well as demos have shown, a lot of systems integrators out there will be scrambling to learn new tricks.

Despite seeing the word “innovation” in a lot of presentations this year, I think it’s misleading. What we’ve seen is smart continuation of existing efforts. Oracle is taking all the neato things that are possible with today’s computing power and making them commonly available. Former Oracle senior VP and general manager Anthony Lye was fond of saying the company was not necessarily an innovator, but a fast follower. This is fine by me. I’m getting the sense that there’s enough wisdom in the company to know that it’s not just about providing the hardware and software, but about understanding why their customers want it and how they want to use it.

I’m looking forward to hearing the responses from other vendors in the coming days and weeks—Dreamforce is right around the corner, after all—and watching it all play out in the coming year. I close these after-action reports with some variation on the above every year, but this year it seems more true than ever before.