If Oracle didn’t build another product for a while, it would be OK. In fact, no one might notice. The company already has thousands, and if the recent OpenWorld 2014 is any indication, there are enough to go around.

Since I attended OpenWorld and it’s my job to critique, I’ll make a few observations.

First, Products

From an overflowing hardware stash to its Java middleware, apps, and various cloud, SaaS, hosting and infrastructure options, the company looks like a python that just devoured a pig — I say this with love.

The pig in a python metaphor came to me in one of the general sessions when I was still trying to understand it all. Oracle gave me a lot of help to understand, too. I had meetings with executives and briefings from leaders of major CRM groups, and I attended a few breakout sessions that drilled into the nitty-gritty.

In the end, it was too much — but again, I say this with love. Too much is a high-class problem, as they say.

The truth is that after a late start in cloud computing, Oracle has come roaring back with a blend of in-house developed and acquired software that will keep it in good stead for a while; hence my original point.

Implied in that point is something more urgent, however. While Oracle has stepped up to cloud computing, it has not fundamentally rethought its messaging, in my opinion. It still seems to sell or offer its stuff as products, like it always has, rather than as the services and solutions that the market wants, as implied by the move to cloud. Selling ROI doesn’t help, either. ROI is a consequence — not the thing you buy.

That Oracle is still in a messaging mode right out of the first Bush administration is not surprising — or at least, it shouldn’t be. In Larry Ellison’s keynote Sunday night, he waxed a bit philosophical, which surprised me.

At one point early in his talk, he discussed his company’s commitment to its earliest customers, more than 30 years ago, and he circled back near the end of his speech to say that Oracle would stand by its customers with on-premises applications for as long as they wanted to use them.

Never mind the logic of moving to the cloud to save money by making software an operational expense rather than a capital one, or the promise of greater functionality and improved user experience of cloud apps. Legacy apps are still on offer, still serviced, supported and enhanced — but so are newer cloud versions. Customers do things for their own reasons, and Oracle is not about to insist that they make big changes to their businesses.

There are pluses and minuses to this approach. It hopefully will engender brand loyalty for the eventual upgrades, and it provides Oracle with a graceful conversion from a license vendor to a subscription vendor.

However, it also leaves Oracle straddling two dramatically different worldviews, and that can’t be cost-effective. Some critics are observing that Oracle is not shifting its business fast enough because of its commitment to the legacy base — but in Oracle’s situation, I don’t know of a better approach.

Overarching Theme

Now, back to messaging. Oracle is a dynamic enterprise, and a very big one too. While it has assembled a wonderful cadre of innovative approaches to big data and IT in general, it needs to do a better job of communicating to the marketplace. Here are some ideas.

My big issue with Oracle is that its communication is too tactical. The company focuses on selling products by their features rather than best practices, and in a situation in which there are loads of products, some better indication of how it all works together to support specific business processes would be useful.

Of course, some parts of the organization are better at this than others. For example, the social apps and CRM in general have relatively good messaging, though the pride of abundance can be seen in CRM too.

Regardless, “hardware and software engineered to work together” misses the point by a country mile. It’s a heterogeneous world, and customers expect their hetero systems to be well supported. The time when Larry Ellison could tell the market to install and use his products without modification is long gone.

Now, that said, selling features when describing new hardware makes sense. Speeds and feeds are what hardware is all about. Even when discussing databases and middleware, it makes sense — speed is what makes everything else possible. Still, the application space is the new battleground, and when feature discussion bleeds into apps, all you get is an incomprehensible pile of attributes and a less-than-clear understanding of benefits.

About the Speakers

I’ve been beating around the bush on this one for a long time, so in an effort at clarity, I will be blunt — though this too is said with love. Many of the speakers who took the stage at OpenWorld were terrible. They lacked rhythm, pacing, and the ability to tell a story. As a matter of fact, storytelling is the first casualty of a decision to talk about features.

When you sell features, your speeches sound like recitations of the phonebook in a congressional filibuster. However, I also question how much rehearsal some of the speakers committed to, and I also wonder how some of the most senior executives for Oracle, as well as its guest speakers, could rise to their positions without being trained to be effective on the stump.

Mark Hurd is the exception. He is fluid and precise while being personable, and his press conferences are good.

Perhaps it’s the venue. The airplane hangar-styled Moscone Center and monolithic slabs of PowerPoint on the walls are not conducive to conjuring an idea of an intimate conversation.

Where’s the WiFi?

Speaking of the hangar, why is it so hard to provide working WiFi in that place? Nothing says we understand the modern wireless customer reality better than good access to the Internet. It is a subliminal message that cuts both ways. When the WiFi is bad, credibility lags — it just does. I know many people who skipped some sessions because they could watch on streaming media from the comfort of their hotel rooms bathed in connectivity. That’s a terrible way to “attend” a conference.

Paradoxically, sometimes the Internet service is OK at Moscone, but at other times it is not, and the vendor renting the space doesn’t seem to matter. So, this is an engineering problem for the landlord, one that ought to be taken care of once and for all. The owners of the hall need to step up to it, because it makes zero sense for a major showplace and venue in San Francisco to have this kind of problem.

Note to the landlord: Can you guys figure this out before Dreamforce?

My Conclusion

There was a lot to like at this year’s OpenWorld. Oracle is a company in transition: its product line, its customer base and its business model. It has done a lot of the hard work in building and acquiring new products, but it needs to focus more on how it presents its products and services to reflect the more social and mobile marketplace it is selling into.

This shouldn’t be hard, but for an engineering company, it might be very unfamiliar territory. The difficulty and opportunity might be summed up in a punning phrase that began circulating at OpenWorld featuring the names of the new co-CEOs: “Hurd and Catz.” Say that three times fast.

Denis Pombriant

Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant's research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and website. He is the author of Hello, Ladies! Dispatches from the Social CRM Frontier and can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on Google+.

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