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Oracle's from Mars, Salesforce.com's from Venus

Oracle's big to-do in San Francisco last night was total bust, news-wise.

Larry Ellison, the headliner, was a no-show. He was replaced by a stream of underlings who talked in excrutiating detail about the company's next business-management software release -- making for a truly mind-dulling event for all but the most ardent Oracle followers.

To top it off, the event went into the dinner hour, and Ellison's handlers waited until the very end of the evening to tell us he wasn't coming. If Oracle was searching for the formula for assembling a room full of cranky journalists, they nailed it.

There was one really interesting thing about it though. The event threw into to stark contrast the difference between Oracle's philosophy and that of its rabble-rousing rival Salesforce.com, which hosted an event of its own on Tuesday.

The companies may compete in the same market, but their messages to customers were worlds apart. While Oracle executives urged customers to "retire" custom-built programs so they can migrate more smoothly to next-generation releases, Salesforce actually encouraged customers to build custom programs on top of its software. In fact, Salesforce's lastest service is an online marketplace where customers can freely distribute and sell their home-brewed creations. The company wants to make custom software development as easy as blogging.

What Oracle doesn't seem to get is that its customers will always need to build custom programs because no software maker can fulfill every business's needs. Asking them to abandon their custom work at every upgrade is just painful and frustrating.

It's lame. But to be fair, Oracle is not the only one guilty of this mentality -- it's been the status quo in the business applications industry for years.

If Oracle really wants to be the leading "on-demand" software company by 2010, as one executive indicated in a PowerPoint slide last night, Ellison's got to change that. And he should show up to talk about it, too.