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Benioff: Oracle should just have ignored me

Soap opera split between rival tech billionaires rivets Silicon Valley in free speech snit.

The mid-afternoon headline on read, "Rift opens in Silicon Valley," a conclusion which further confirmed a long-standing suspicion that editors ought to drastically reduce their caffeine intake. The story centered on the billionaire boy bust-up that everyone's writing about since Oracle unceremoniously dumped Salesforce's Marc Benioff's keynote slot at the Oracle OpenWorld conference taking place this week in San Francisco.

A better headline would have been: "Larry Ellison walks into Benioff trap, Oracle CEO now rues the day."

And so he should. employees in front of a San Francisco restaurant before CEO Marc Benioff's speech James Martin/CNET

On Tuesday evening, Benioff went public with a couple of tweets announcing that Oracle had canceled his keynote at OpenWorld. For's publicity-loving CEO, this was a golden opportunity to play the role of martyr in prime time, and he seized the moment for all it was worth. "Banished" to a ritzy San Francisco restaurant a stone's throw from the convention center where Oracle is holding its trade show this week, Benioff went ahead with his planned speech Wednesday afternoon and then proceeded to bat around Oracle as if it were a hanging pinata.

What must be especially galling to Oracle was the enormous helping of free publicity Salesforce garnered for what would otherwise have been a standard sales pitch that merited little notice outside a small circle of Benioff friends and family (in a nice touch, his mom was in the audience). But this was the kind of red meat drama that most tech CEOs are wont to participate in. Not Benioff. Before the presentation got under way, several hundred people lined up around the block from the restaurant venue, while Oracle employees carried placards dramatizing Oracle's decision to try and shut down their boss--who was having the time of his life.

"Nobody would have cared," Benioff acknowledged. "They should have just ignored me."

But there are no do-overs and so Benioff was free to irritate Ellison and Oracle to his heart's content, which he did with aplomb--all the while exploiting the chance to wrap in the flag of openness and all things democratic (technologically speaking, that is). Early on he drew an analogy between Oracle and the example of deposed Egyptian despot Hosni Mubarak.

"This social revolution has created a social divide," Benioff later said. "This social divide has to be solved. There are many people at Oracle OpenWorld that didn't know this has happened."

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He also couldn't resist drawing an invidious comparison to Oracle when he noted the number of transactions that processes each quarter--more than 36 billion. "All of this architecture is built on the cloud," Benioff said. "It is open, it is not proprietary. That is not the message of the show. It is not democratic. That is the false cloud." You don't need a translation to know who he was referring to.

On and on it went with Benioff mixing business cliches and standard fare; at times it sounded like an updated version of a recent presentation he delivered at the Dreamforce conference with periodic gobsmacks of Ellison and his cohorts for clinging to an outdated view of the way business, if not society, ought to be organized.

But during the Q&A following his canned remarks, Benioff did divert from script to acknowledge that, well, he was just trying to out-Larry Larry.

"He did train me and I'm just trying to do what he would have done in a similar situation," said Benioff, who worked for Ellison at Oracle in the 1990s. "Larry's about aggressive moves and that's certainly how he taught me to behave in business."

"In my world, this is just tennis," he continued. "We hit the ball back and forth across the net. It's not personal and I would never want it to affect our relationship."