Users upset by reduced Oracle presence at show

The noticeably limited presence of Oracle Corp. at last week’s Oracle Applications Users Group conference in Honolulu had members of the organization upset by a lack of support and resources from the company and concerned that this could weaken a major independent forum for Oracle users.

Last spring Oracle offered to fold the OAUG’s two North American conferences into a single event sponsored by the software vendor, but the Atlanta-based user group rejected the idea out of fear of losing its independence. Two months later, Oracle announced that it would go ahead and hold its own applications conference, called Oracle ApplicationsWorld, next February – a decision that CEO Larry Ellison rationalized by saying that “choice is a good thing” for users.

But choice is exactly what some OAUG members claim is being taken from them. At last week’s conference, users of Oracle’s enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management applications said they fear that a vendor-sponsored show will be oriented toward sales and marketing activities, with less room for open dialogue and criticism. Moreover, they said, such an event would likely be targeted mainly at potential new users, sacrificing the needs of Oracle’s installed base.

“We are a captive audience to some extent,” said Dianne Waldman, financial system liaison director at DreamWorks SKG, a Glendale, Calif.-based entertainment company. “We spend millions to get up on Oracle. It’s not like I can pick up tomorrow and say, ‘See ya, Larry; I’m going to PeopleSoft.’ I feel they’re taking advantage of that. We feel trapped and captive and helpless.”

Ron Wohl, Oracle’s executive vice-president of applications development, said users can choose which conference they want to attend. But, he added, ApplicationsWorld will be the “focus of Oracle’s attention, including development, support consulting and education.” Oracle is still talking with the OAUG in an attempt to come to some sort of agreement for a single conference, Wohl said.

Not everyone outside of Oracle has a hostile view of ApplicationsWorld.

“I don’t see this as a shirking of the user group,” said Jeffrey Shepard, vice president of Cap Gemini Ernst & Young U.S., a Cleveland-based consultancy and an Oracle business partner. ApplicationsWorld would exist as another forum for Oracle users, similar to SAP AG’s Sapphire conference, Shepard said. Some users are just nervous about change, he added.

However, one software exhibitor at the OAUG conference who asked to remain anonymous said such change could be devastating. The exhibitor said Oracle representatives indicated informally to her that the company preferred its partners’ allegiance be with ApplicationsWorld, and she doesn’t plan to attend the next OAUG conference. “ApplicationsWorld could kill the OAUG conference,” she said.

At the show last week, there were significantly fewer Oracle employees present than in previous years – down from approximately 800 at last spring’s conference to just 100. And while Oracle did present a mini-theatre, missing were the technical panels, educational workshops and other support programs that Oracle had previously sponsored at OAUG conferences.

Users faced with the thorny problems of migrating to Oracle’s new E-Business Suite 11i applications found this particularly unpleasant. “They need to pay attention to the end user who flew all the way out here,” said Pamela Sheehan, an OAUG procurement committee co-chairman. “Oracle is delivering a product that is buggy, and [users] want answers to questions.”

Gail Wallin, a senior business analyst at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., agreed, adding that the OAUG conference is different from ApplicationsWorld. “This [conference] is more geared for the user, not to the [vendor],” she said. “If I had no other choice, I would go [to ApplicationsWorld]. But it’s not the way I wanted it. They would be taking away the right for me to go where I want.”

At a user forum last Tuesday, one anonymous customer expressed frustration about the drop-off in Oracle employees’ attendance at the conference. “Does Oracle listen to its customers?” the user asked, drawing applause from about half of the several-hundred-strong audience.

Some OAUG members looked askance at a party that was hosted last week by an Oracle business partner at which free tickets to ApplicationsWorld were offered as prizes. They said they felt that violated, at least in spirit, an agreement that Oracle won’t recruit attendees for its own show at OAUG’s conferences.

However, Oracle claimed that it’s not in competition with the OAUG and has done nothing wrong. Mark Jarvis, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Oracle, pointed out that the OAUG represents only about 15 per cent of Oracle’s total installed base of customers. “You’re talking a small minority of our customers,” Jarvis said.

And while some users said they feel that the OAUG conference is in peril, the OAUG board is confident that the organization itself remains strong. Jeremy Young, the OAUG’s president, said ApplicationsWorld shouldn’t be a threat in the long run. “OAUG has a value proposition in terms of independence and user-to-user networking which will continue into the future,” he said. “We look forward to working with Oracle.”