After A Cancelled Keynote, Benioff Strikes Back; Talks Future Of The Cloud (From A Restaurant)

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The fun continued this morning at Oracle’s OpenWorld Conference in San Francisco. Or, I should say, the fun continued at a restaurant across the street. Fine dining and location aside, for those unfamiliar, yesterday afternoon Oracle CEO Larry Ellison cancelled a keynote that was planned for this morning by none other than his former employee and frenemy: CEO of Salesforce, Marc Benioff.

As we reported yesterday, Benioff tweeted last night to his followers, “Sorry #oow11 I don’t know why….Larry just cancelled my keynote tomorrow! Join me@St.Regis AME Restaurant at 10:30AM! I’m disappointed too!”

Though Oracle representatives were quick to say that the cancellation was simply a result of “overwhelming attendance”, and that Benioff was offered a keynote later in the week, it’s hard to say that this isn’t the result of something more than a full schedule. Puh-leeze. Then again, whether or not it betrays the simmering feud between Ellison and Benioff (and who has the keys to the “real” cloud), it was also just a genius promotional move by the Salesforce CEO. Let’s call a spade a spade.

In an address to reporters this morning at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco (ahem, not the Moscone Center, the scene of OpenWorld), the Salesforce CEO said that he had petitioned Oracle last night, specifically Judy Sim Oracle’s CMO, who Benioff says he’s known for years, hoping to win his spot back on stage. Sim was apparently not in favor, and as Benioff is scheduled to fly to Ohio on Thursday, Oracle was obviously unwilling to double back and offer Benioff the opportunity to give his keynote today.

In reference to the seemingly passive-aggressive move by Oracle, Benioff said, “normally, no one would have cared what I had to say today”, but because of the traction the cancellation was able to garner last night on blogs, Facebook, Twitter et al, many more people are paying attention to this than might have otherwise. And I daresay the Salesforce CEO was enjoying it.

Benioff said that Larry Ellison had once taught him to read and internalize “The Art Of War” by Sun Tzu, in which the high ranking Chinese military general and strategist advised readers to “ignore the anger” and use it for good. All Ellison had to do in response was say to his staff “let me know what he says, and thanks for bringing it to my attention”, he said. What’s more, according the Salesforce CEO, Oracle knew exactly what he planned to say in his keynote, as they gave Oracle the slides he would share during his keynote beforehand, which he said were very similar in nature to the talk he gave at Salesforce’s Dreamforce Conference back in August.

Not to mention, as the New York Times reported last night, a keynote speech at a top conference like OpenWorld can cost the speaker up to $1 million. According to Benioff, Oracle offered him his money back. So, clearly, they weren’t particularly eager to reverse their position.

Outside of their business strategies, the Salesforce and Oracle CEOs both are quick to acknowledge their mutual respect and admiration, but when it comes to the future of technology, the future of the cloud, and the different approaches that each company takes to their business strategy and revenue models, there’s little to no love lost.

Last year at the OpenWorld Conference, Benioff seized the opportunity to take a few digs at Oracle’s philosophy and its software, most notably calling Oracle’s Exadata system “the false cloud” that is far from aligned from what enterprise customers want and need in today’s cloud computing world. And, of course, Ellison was not one to retreat from the jab, using his keynote to express problems with, in particular, the security of Salesforce’s architecture, saying, “You’ve got many customers and their data just coexist in the same database, and since there’s no fault-isolation, a system failure brings down many customers”. Ellison then showed the audience a slide of Benioff’s most recent book “Behind The Cloud”, that had been altered to say, “Way Behind The Cloud”.

Oh snap! Some might say that this is just “all in good fun”, or pointless drama. But today shows that there is indeed a more-than-superficial divide between these two companies, and even though Microsoft and Oracle are the dominant players in the space, as Oracle, for one, has approximately $36 billion in revenue and a market cap of $144 billion (compared to Salesforce’s $2 billion in revenues and market capitalization of $16 billion), the hardware company is certainly all too aware of how quickly the eager young upstart is gaining.

And if Salesforce is gaining, might it have something to do with Benioff’s conception of the future of the cloud? In the past — and again today — Benioff has been outspoken in his belief that IT companies must become social enterprises — that the social revolution is very real and needs to be a significant part of the IT industry’s future.

Of course, Ellison is quick to point out that Salesforce isn’t a real cloud company, because it is applications-only, rather than apps backed by that all-important cloud infrastructure. And Oracle, Ellison believes, is more typical of a cloud computing company with its end-to-end stack is far from a partial cloud, nor does it lack the virtualization traditionally pictured when one thinks of the cloud — and something that he believes Salesforce does not offer to the same extent.

On the other side, Benioff said that his company’s strategic acquisitions of Heroku, the Ruby-based cloud app deployment and scaling platform, Radian6, and Jigsaw over the last 18 months, while expensive, were important moves forward in allowing the company to realize its social future. “We can’t believe everything ourselves”, he said. In particular, Benioff was so excited about the Heroku acquisition that he led it himself — largely because of the appeal of Heroku’s multi-language and multi-tenant platform, which is what enterprise cloud customers really want, the CEO said.

Because of Salesforce’s tight integration with Facebook, with the Heroku acquisition, Salesforce has allowed developers to go straight to Facebook to build applications right on the social network that automatically integrate social features and make the Salesforce experience more in tune with the current needs of businesses.

While showcasing Chatter (Salesforce’s Facebook for the corporate customer) today, Benioff admitted that his company’s adoption of non-proprietary software and social media is “contrarian”, and many in the industry (including Ellison) disagree with this direction. Yet, he is firmly of the belief that “social technology is shaking our industry at the core” — and don’t expect the company to be pivoting on its social mantra anytime soon.

“The message of this show is proprietary hardware and software are the future”, the Salesforce CEO said, “our message is beware of the false cloud. It is not efficient, it is not democratic, it is not open”. And who does Benioff see as the main proponent of the false cloud? Take a wild guess.

It has also become clear that Benioff’s tweets from last night irked Ellison — as well as others at Oracle, as MarketWatch reported that NetSuite Chief Executive Zach Nelson criticized Benioff’s words in an email saying, “Last time I looked, Salesforce.com is built on the Oracle database, so I think Marc slamming Oracle for not being a cloud provider is a bit bizarre”. Benioff responded by saying that Oracle’s technology is one part of Salesforce’s infrastructure that also relies on technologies like Dell to make Salesforce hum.

Concluding his question and answer session with reporters today, Benioff was of the view that, today, Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference has become a “bigger venue and a more exciting conference” as a whole. While Salesforce may not have proprietary mainframes, he said in a dig at Oracle, Dreamforce is now big enough that the company no longer needs Oracle’s conference to get their message out.

Thus, in reference to his company’s future (or at least his own future) at Oracle’s conference, he concluded: “This is probably our swan song”. And just like that, the standoff takes another step forward.

But wait, did Benioff just beat Ellison at his own game?

(More on the cancellation from last night here.)

Thanks to Reuters for the Excerpt image