What Oracle should have said about Sun at OpenWorld 2009

One of the things which distinguishes the Oracle-Sun merger is that no combination of the two firm’s names has become at all popular. There’s little talk of “Soracle,” or “Orasun” compared to the Microhoos that were bandied about some time ago. People have a hard time reconciling these brands as one entity. The technologies are another matter.

Oracle was wise to kick off its OpenWorld conference this week by attempting to address its controversial plan to merge with Sun, a decision which is being held up by European regulators. There was little doubt, of course, that Oracle would continue to invest in Java, Solaris and other popular enterprise software. The bigger question was how Oracle will become a legitimate hardware player.

This may be one area where less integration is more. As Scott McNealy and other Sun executives pointed out, the two companies have already been working together for decades. There has to be a decent level of interoperability and optimization between Oracle enterprise applications and its servers. There doesn’t need to be a tighter marriage here, unless you want to make other customers – say, the scores of IT departments running IBM servers who opt for Oracle – feel alienated and left out.

It would have made good sense, in fact, to announce that Sun would continue under its own name with “An Oracle Corp. Company,” as its tagline, at least for an interim period. Ellison might have earned praise if he had suggested the Sun team would run relatively autonomously, except where customers indicated they wanted to benefit from the full breadth of systems and software that Oracle and Sun could provide. Of course, that might have made OpenWorld attendees wonder why Oracle had bought Sun in the first place, just as they might wonder why, if Ellison’s claim that his database runs best on Sun, the company touted a “database machine” with HP a year before attempting the Sun acquisition.

While McNealy was lambasting Apple for not running Java on the iPhone, Ellison could have gone in another direction and outlined a proprietary hardware/software approach that mimicked Apple. Although it didn’t really work in the consumer arena – witness Apple’s tiny market share and almost non-existence in the business space – it’s never been attempted by two firms with established product portfolios. Ellison doesn’t usually lack fortitude: why not declare that eventually customers won’t be able to run Oracle on anything but Sun. Sure, it’s crazy, but no crazier than what the merger itself implies.

The final option would be to promise better support or pricing for Oracle-Sun combinations than what IBM could offer. Oracle can’t compete with IBM on services (unless it decides to purchase CGI or CSC, too), and Oracle has a history of using support as a weapon against other companies, like Red Hat. As it stands, the OpenWorld keynote did little to tell customers anything about what this merger would really mean. Either Ellison and McNealy don’t want to share the real story, or they haven’t figured it out yet. I’m not sure which scenario is worse.  

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