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Ellison Speaks at Oracle Open World

Is it possible that Larry Ellison's decision to step down as CEO of Oracle will mean we actually see more of him? He has made two appearances so far at the annual Oracle OpenWorld conference in San Francisco this week under his new titles of Executive Chairman and Chief Technology Officer. Last year he bailed on his conference keynote to focus on the America's Cup, during which Oracle Team USA was staging an admittedly thrilling comeback. Attendees who traveled from...well, everywhere....and paid to see the guy were not sympathetic.

Ellison started his afternoon appearance yesterday with what amounted to an apology for his absence last year, and then launched into his familiar get-through-this-and-kill-'em-with-numbers pace. But then he slowed down, joked with the crowd, and worked his way amiably through a couple of demos.

"Because of my new job as CTO, I gotta do my demos by myself," he said. "Almost nobody works for me anymore." He hastily added, "I love my new job, by the way."

Maybe it was the V-neck sweater and slacks, but Ellison seemed to relax into his promised drill down on Oracle's platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offering. During his demo, he showed how users could migrate an on-premises Java application to Oracle's cloud database and WebLogic server. It took a bit more than the "push of a button" he'd talked about during his Sunday keynote opener, but not much.

Oracle continues to bet big (if a bit behind the competition) on the cloud. On Sunday, Ellison touted his company's upgraded cloud platform as an all-in-one environment for running apps and data, and for building out new apps as customers move to the cloud. The Oracle offering includes a "massively upgraded" PaaS featuring Oracle Database 12c; infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS); and rapidly growing software-as-a-service (SaaS). The company claims to have picked up more than 2,100 new SaaS customers over the past year. "We have by far the largest portfolio of cloud applications of anybody," Ellison declared. "We built a lot more in 2014. We bought a lot more in 2014. We definitely had a build-and-buy strategy."

Ellison sounded like his old trash-talking self on Sunday as he took swipes at the competition, including SAP, Amazon, Workday, and Salesforce.com. He singled out SAP, which recently bought Concur Technologies, a travel and expense software provider, in a deal worth $8.3 billion. He focused on the company's Hana in-memory computing platform.

"I'm going to try to be nice," Ellison said. "But it's so hard. I have no idea what runs on Hana. It's rude but it's the truth. And it's kinda funny. What cloud? Let's just talk about Earth."

He also took a shot at Salesforce.com. Oracle is the only cloud vendor that "lets you use the same platform it builds on to extend cloud apps," he said, while Salesforce.com uses the Oracle platform to build its apps, and then relegates its customers to extending apps with its proprietary Force.com and Salesforce1 platforms. Still, he allowed that Salesforce "is the best of the rest, because at least they have a platform. The other guys… they don't even have a platform. It's missing in action."

Hard to believe Ellison is now 70 years old, and even harder to imagine the hyper-competitive exec slowing down. Forbes just published its annual list of the 400 Wealthiest Americans, and Ellison came in third, behind Warren Buffett (second) and Bill Gates (first), and just ahead of the Koch brothers. What do retirees do when they're worth $47.6 billion?

Of course, Ellison isn't retiring, is he? There's a reason we're not hearing much "end of an era" talk around his move. He's not actually leaving the company he co-founded. He's not even stepping away from day-to-day involvement in the company's operations. He'll be free of some responsibilities; Safra Catz will continue to look after manufacturing, finance, and legal operations, and Mark Hurd will continue managing the company's sales, service, and global business units. But Ellison is now head of engineering and product development, so he'll still be working with Hurd and Catz -- my guess is, closely.

I asked OpenWorld attendees what they thought about Ellison's decision to step down from the big chair. Several said they thought it was a smart move that freed Ellison from some responsibilities without reducing his influence. "Let's face it, how would a person who is both the CTO and Chairman of the Board of a tech company not tell the CEOs where the company is going or should go?" said attendee Keith Gapol, IT associate at Agilent Technologies. "He will still be driving the development direction of the company."

I also heard comments like this one from an attendee from the UK: "Oof! I've had enough of that man!"

Most of the people I talked to were unphazed by the Oracle executive shuffle. A developer who flew in for the event from Boston summed up what I found in my unscientific survey to be the prevailing opinion: "I don't think it'll make that much of a difference," he said. "I mean, he's not really going anywhere, is he?"

Posted by John K. Waters on October 1, 2014