When Larry Ellison once said, “I used to think. Now I read The Economist,” he gave that magazine the kind of status and prestige that transformed the way everyone thought about it. Now imagine what he could have done with the BlackBerry, or the PlayBook.
Among the more scintillating revelations to come out of the trail proceedings in Oracle vs. Google this week has been the admission that Oracle had considered buying Research In Motion, as well as Palm, as a way to break into the smart phone market. Ellison said Oracle, which alleges Google ripped off its intellectual property to build the Android OS, decided against RIM because it would have cost too much, and Palm lacked the competitive prowess to succeed. Both were probably good calls at the time. But I remember being in a room with Larry Ellison when he said BEA was too expensive. That didn’t stop the company from buying BEA less than three years later.
What would an Oracle-owned RIM have looked like? Possibly a lot different from today, when its reputation is mired by poorly-received product, a string of PR blunders, senior executive turnover and a litany of other problems. Oracle was probably interested in RIM because just a few years ago, BlackBerry was all about business users, much like its software. Just in the way that Apple took a predictably proprietary approach to the smart phone market by owning the device, OS and creating an application ecosystem that only grudgingly accepted third party contributions, Oracle would have doubled down on the corporate sector with a strong combination of database, application and handset expertise.
An Oracle takeover wouldn’t have let RIM avoid all its current troubles, of course. There still probably would have been executive churn (Jim Balsillie would never have survived the transition) and the consumerization of IT would have forced Oracle to do the kind of marketing for which it has next to no experience. Oracle would not have been able to make the BlackBerry or the PlayBook any cooler than the iPhone or iPad, but Team Ellison might have been able to do something else: prove that apps are more important than the handset. Even a glance at the Oracle Fusion Tap images that were discovered online recently show an impressive attempt to create easy-to-navigate interfaces to complex business applications on mobile devices. For all RIM’s talk about so-called SuperApps, Oracle’s the one who may make actual super enterprise business apps. And that would have been appealing to the installed base of CIOs and IT managers Oracle would have gained through a RIM acquisition.
Under Oracle, PlayBook might have been more of a WorkBook, which sounds less sexy but might have resonated more powerfully and differentiated RIM from Apple. Maybe it doesn’t matter if Oracle didn’t, in fact, end up buying RIM. Maybe what matters is that RIM start behaving as though it did.