Sifting Through the Rubble

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What’s the point in sponsoring a conference? Conventional wisdom holds that the real value is the exposure and the lasting impact on current and future customers. If so, someone might have mentioned that point to technology giant HP, which parlayed a sponsorship of this year’s Oracle OpenWorld conference into an opportunity to address the event’s 40,000-plus attendees (and thousands of additional online viewers) during the opening keynote.

HP’s presentation ran roughly an hour—but “roughly” could also describe how the audience responded. How bad was it? Ray Wang, principal analyst and chief executive officer at Constellation Research—and one of CRM magazine’s Influential Leaders in this year’s CRM Market Awards (September 2010)—commented that it was the “worst keynote [he] had seen in 10 years.”

Given the reaction in the hall—and, more important, over Twitter—“HP” might just as well have stood for “humdrum presentation.” Many felt the HP executives were reading straight from the teleprompters, and the only thing worse than the delivery was the content itself: HP drowned the audience in a sea of marketing messages. 

“This HP infomercial is a criminal waste of an opportunity,” twittered Carter Lusher, research fellow and chief analyst for the enterprise applications ecosystem at Ovum. Attendees soon adopted the hashtag #keynotetorture, as HP went on—and on—without the slightest acknowledgment of a suffering audience.

Another twitterer, looking for a silver lining, remarked that at least the subsequent address by Oracle cofounder and CEO Larry Ellison was sure to seem stellar by comparison. Oracle’s communications team had gone to great lengths to hype Ellison’s Sunday-evening keynote—an addition to the Wednesday-afternoon slot he had favored in past years. “There’s so much news, Larry has to have two keynotes,” they said. Ellison, unfortunately, seemed to fall flat on both occasions. His Sunday keynote—though a step above HP’s—did little to undo the damage, perhaps because so many attendees had already left the hall.

Much of the news involved hardware and a new “cloud-computing-in-a-box” offering. Seeking to distinguish Oracle’s view of cloud computing from that of software-as-a-service pioneer Salesforce.com, Ellison emphasized Oracle’s ability to provide a complete cloud infrastructure in a single offering. Despite accusations from analysts and the media that Ellison was guilty of “cloudwashing,” some noted they were just happy to see Oracle finally talking the talk at all in cloud computing. In a blogpost, Paul Greenberg, founder of consultancy The 56 Group, points out that Oracle’s cloud commitment undoubtedly protects its own interests. “They just aren’t doing [what] I would when it comes to messaging,” Greenberg writes. “But then I’m not worth $27 billion either.”

As Denis Pombriant, principal of Beagle Research Group, wrote in a blogpost: “In the Oracle conception, the pioneering bookseller [Amazon.com] is on the leading edge of advanced technology while the trailblazing Salesforce.com is merely 10 years old and destined for history’s ash heap. This definition is gaining altitude but only in the way that any other flat-earth theory, repeated often enough, sounds credible.”

Despite the rather disappointing keynotes, some OpenWorld moments generated excitement. Near the end of his Sunday address, Ellison finally gave attendees what many had been waiting for: a look at the integrated Fusion Applications that Oracle began promising five years ago. At one standing-room-only general session, the Oracle CRM team demonstrated Fusion’s new functions and features, and Anthony Lye, senior vice president of Oracle CRM On Demand, also hosted a session dedicated to forward-looking CRM. Lye, a pioneer when it comes to social CRM—and an Influential Leader in past CRM Market Awards—discussed such topics as customer referral value and the need for new metrics.

OpenWorld left several questions unanswered. For example: What is Oracle’s go-to-market strategy moving forward? Ellison repeatedly stressed the company’s desire to unify hardware and software products, but what does that mean for Oracle’s traditional software customers? Will research and development be unevenly weighted? Will innovation—and, in particular, CRM innovation—suffer?

The event also renewed the old debate over software suites versus best-of-breed applications. Fusion Apps promise the ability to link all Oracle software applications in a meaningful way; standards-based Fusion Middleware is supposed to minimize the amount of integration work required; and organizations should be able to unify with CRM several previously stovepiped applications such as order management. This “single-stack” scenario may threaten services by channel partners. With Fusion Apps still in their infancy, and with no beta customers yet to provide feedback, the real answers may have to wait a while. Or until HP finishes its presentation, whichever comes first.

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