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For Oracle followers its a bumper crop—two important books released about Ellison and Oracle within a few weeks of each other.
A few weeks ago we brought you an excerpt from the unauthorized biography of Larry Ellison—“Everyone Else Must Fail”—where author Karen Southwick pondered the future of Oracle. The book looks at Oracle through the eyes of the disgruntled—former workers, investors and ex-friends.
“Softwar”—the semi-autobiographical book from Matthew Symonds and Larry Ellison—takes a different approach. Symonds spent almost two years in regular company with Ellison, plumbing the depths of this complex man and the company he built. In some spots it reads like “Travels With Charley,” but it is at its best when Ellison himself pens one of the many footnotes littering the text, to clarify or explain a particular passage.
We bring you a passage from “Softwar,” where Symonds details the beginnings of the Ellison/Gates feud, and how Oracle chose its particular brand of competing with the Redmond, Wash., Co.
Unlike Southwick, who reported from afar, Symonds was granted unprecedented access to Ellison. After reading through this revealing excerpt, join Symonds and eWEEK.com editors in our forums, discussing what it was like to live on Ellisons rarefied strata.
SOFTWAR, By Matthew Symonds with Larry Ellison
A subject thats close to Ellisons heart is Oracles enemies. He strongly believes that Oracle is always at its best when it has an identifiable enemy to go after: “We pick our enemies very carefully. It helps us focus. We cant explain what we do unless we compare it to someone else who does it differently. We dont know if were gaining or losing unless we constantly compare ourselves to the competition.” When Oracle was fighting its relational database rivals for market supremacy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was famous for the in-your-face aggression of its “attack” advertising.
The aggression hasnt altered, but the size and power of the firms with which Ellison wants Oracle to be compared have. These days, none other than IBM finds itself the regular target of Oracles ads and Ellisons combative speeches, while not a little of Ellisons own fame has come directly from his highly public assaults on Microsoft and his obsession with one day overtaking the colossus of Redmond to make Oracle the number one software company in the world. When people think of Ellison, its all too often as a kind of alter ego to Bill Gates, softwares other billionaire.
Ziffpage Ellisons Microsoft Attacks Backfire
Ellisons Microsoft Attacks Backfire
An odd effect of this was to diminish Oracles own extraordinary success. Surely it was better to be known as the worlds biggest enterprise software firm than to be seen as Microsofts perennial challenger. As for Ellisons attacks on Gates, they could make him seem “chippy” and resentful, both of which were far from the truth. What made it even stranger was the fact that Microsoft and Oracle compete only at the margins. To be sure, Microsoft has a database product, originally licensed from Oracles old rival, Sybase, more than a decade ago. But despite attempts by Microsoft to present the latest versions of its SQL Server as being sufficiently capable for data center duty, its deployment is still mostly departmental. Although Microsoft would like nothing better than to destroy Oracles profitability by commoditizing the database business, the demands of Internet computing have so far thwarted that ambition. SQL Server remains essentially a “good enough” database thats bundled into Microsofts BackOffice server suite to put some price pressure on Oracle at the low end of the market. As for applications, Microsoft has remained content to dominate the desktop with Office, preferring to partner with Oracles competitors, such as SAP, than to compete with Oracle head-on.
However, from Ellisons perspective, the assault on Microsoft and all its works, which he initiated in September 1995 when deriding the PC as “a ridiculous device,” had not only evolved into the much broader war on complexity, but created an awareness both of Oracle and of its vision of computing that nothing else could have achieved. Since then, although Microsofts wealth had grown almost exponentially thanks to its near-monopoly profits from Windows and Office, it no longer had quite the aura of invincibility it had previously enjoyed. Thanks to the Internet, computing had moved decisively toward a model that played much more to Oracles strengths than to Microsofts. As for the antitrust case against Microsoft that had arisen from its brutal suppression of Netscape, it had not only hugely distracted its senior management but done great damage to the —companys reputation. A few days after, I discussed these issues with Ellison. The Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals found Microsoft guilty of serially abusing its monopoly power while rejecting the controversial remedy of District Court Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson that it should be broken into two companies.
Ellisons antipathy toward Microsoft seemed to go much further than simply seeing it as a dangerous business adversary. He once said to me that what he really didnt like about Microsoft was that it didnt have any taste. What did he mean? “Well, actually I was quoting Steve Jobs. He said that the thing that really bothers him most about Microsoft is not how successful they are or how much money they have; its the tasteless mediocrity of their software.”
Microsofts Skills at Copying,
in Ellisons Own Words”> Microsofts Skills at Copying, in Ellisons Own Words
Ellison writes in a footnote: “I totally agree with Steve, Microsofts software is rarely first rate. They never, ever innovate, but —theyre pretty good copiers. All those bright people up in Redmond remind me of the guys you see sitting in museums making beautiful copies of great art. Their pictures are beautiful, but theyre copies—forgeries. Ever since the guilty verdict in the antitrust case, Bill began chanting Microsofts new mantra: Please, please —dont take away our right to innovate. Microsoft innovate! Give me a fucking break. The innovation for the Internet came from Netscape. All Microsoft did was copy Netscapes browser and bundle a free copy of the browser with Windows. But it —wasnt really free at all. Microsoft _got paid for its free browser by raising the price of Windows. But Netscape couldnt charge for its browser because Microsoft included a free browser as a part of Windows. It was a brilliant business strategy. It killed Netscape. But its illegal. Now Microsoft is trying to do the _exact same thing to RealNetworks [the innovators of Internet streamed video and audio] by bundling a free media player with Windows. Theyll just keep doing it over and over again until somebody penalizes them for doing it. Youre got to give them credit for balls, but not for innovation. Even Bills business strategy is just a copy of Standard Oils strategy back in the 1870s. But when Rockefeller used his monopoly to crush his competitors, it wasnt illegal. There were no antitrust laws back then.
“So whats Microsofts single greatest innovation? Take your time. —Its a trick question. There arent any. All that money Microsoft spends on research; what have they got to show for it? Nothing! Compare that to IBMs research results. IBM invented the disk drive, they invented core memory, they invented the scanning tunneling microscope, they invented fractal geometry. The list of IBM inventions goes on and on. IBM researchers have won Nobel Prizes. IBM, at the height of their greatness, was a national treasure, an institution that anyone would be proud to be a part of. They dont do software very well anymore, but their old mainframe stuff was great. I make fun of a lot of other databases—all other databases, in fact, except the mainframe version of DB2. Its a first-rate piece of technology. Microsoft may have more money than IBM ever did, but they dont have more ideas. Its the difference between a great fashion designer in Paris and someone who just does knockoffs in Brooklyn. Except that Microsoft would bundle the dresses with Windows and give them away for free.”
Microsoft Hypocrisy Infuriates Ellison
Microsoft Hypocrisy Infuriates Ellison
Symonds continues: There are few things that Ellison loathes more than hypocrisy. Its one of the reasons that people often find him objectionable—he almost never says the politically correct thing, whether the subject is dating Oracle employees or how he spends his money. If he thinks hes in danger of sounding sanctimonious, hell suddenly shut up in the middle of a conversation. More than anything, it was Gatess hypocrisy about the “right to innovate” that infuriated Ellison: “I didnt despise Bill for destroying Netscape, which wasnt very nice or legal, for that matter. Bill just calculated he could smash his competitors by breaking the law and get away it. Who knows? Maybe he can. But when Bill defended Microsofts murderous behavior by saying, All I ask is the right to innovate, that kind of pushed me over the edge. Netscape did the innovation, Bill—thats why you killed them! All you did was copy the innovation and destroy the innovator. To kill the innovator in the name of innovation was such an incredible lie, such a cynical piece of deception, such hyperhypocrisy, I just couldnt stand it. If Bill had said, We killed Netscape because they were in our way; they werent tough enough to survive, so fuck em. Hey, Andreessen [Marc Andreessen founded Netscape when he was twenty-one], welcome to the software industry, punk. Ive got a little present for you; its a pine box and a bullet with your name on it. Thatll teach little kids to stay the fuck out of my neighborhood. Mess with Microsoft, you die. Okay, cool. Thats still not very nice, but at least its honest.”
Ellison Responds: “Most people are so in love with their own ideas that it confines their thinking—creates boundaries and limits their ability to solve problems. Bill, however, has this Asian-like ability to manage his intellectual vanity and take ideas, regardless of where they come from, and put them to work for Microsoft.* The terrifying thing about Bill is that hes smart enough to understand what ideas are good—whats worth replicating—and he has the discipline and resources to get on with it and make it just a little bit better. Thats very Japanese. Thats very scary. Add that to Bills ruthless perseverance and the fact that Microsoft has more money than God, and you get a most formidable foe—the ultimate foe, the perfect enemy. We pick our enemies very carefully. We decided to pick a fight with the biggest, most dangerous bully in the schoolyard. Theres no way to avoid this fight, so lets start it.”
Ellison Recalls a Phone Call With Gates
For a couple of years—between 1990, when Microsoft did its deal with Sybase, and 1992, when Oracle 7 arrived to save his bacon—Ellison regarded Gates as a direct competitor. But for most of the time, at least until Ellison launched his attack on the PC in the wake of the release of Windows 95, these were profound differences between Oracle and Microsoft—one was a desktop company, the other was server-based; one was Windows, the other largely UNIX; one believed in the proprietary software route, the other was committed to standards—actually made it easier for the two men to get along. Ellison says, “Bill and I used to be friends, insofar as Bill has friends. Back in the eighties and early nineties, all the people in the PC software industry hated Bill because they feared Bill. But Oracle didnt compete with Microsoft very much back then, so we got on pretty well. As I got to know Bill, I developed a great respect for the thoroughness of his thinking and his relentless, remorseless pursuit of industry domination. I found spending time with Bill intellectually interesting but emotionally exhausting; he has absolutely no sense of humor. I think he finds humor an utter waste of time an unnecessary distraction from the business at hand. Scary stuff. I dont have anything like that kind of focus or single-mindedness.”
One telephone conversation with Gates in 1993 sticks in Ellisons mind. “It was the most interesting conversation Ive ever had with Bill, and the most revealing. It was around eleven oclock in the morning, and we were on the phone discussing some technical issue, I dont remember what it was. Anyway, I didnt agree with him on some point, and I explained my reasoning. Bill says, Ill have to think about that, Ill call you back. Then I get this call at four in the afternoon and its Bill continuing the conversation with Yeah, I think youre right about that, but what about A and B and C? I said, Bill, have you been thinking about this for the last five hours? He said, yes, he had, it was an important issue and he wanted to get it right. Now Bill wanted to continue the discussion and analyze the implications of it all. I was just stunned. He had taken the time and effort to think it all through and had decided I was right and he was wrong. Now, most people hate to admit theyre wrong, but it didnt bother Bill one bit. All he cared about was what was right, not who was right. Thats what makes Bill very, very dangerous.
Join Author Matthew Symonds in our forum from Oct. 31 through Nov. 5 as he discusses what it was like to live inside Ellisons reality distortion field for two years.