No one is describing the situation as a crisis yet, but Oracle is palpably reeling following the abrupt departure last week of Ray Lane, the company's chief operating officer and number two to chief executive Larry Ellison.
Lane, who remains on the Oracle board, had been in charge of running the day-to-day affairs of the world's number two software company since his appointment in 1992. He is widely credited with its spectacular growth over that period, and was popularly perceived as level-headed and a safe pair of hands - an essential foil to the charismatic, visionary, yet occasionally wilful Ellison. On Wall Street, Lane enjoyed the status of a god.
His resignation begs numerous questions. Rumours that he might soon be stepping down to enjoy the considerable rewards with which Ellison showered him have been circulating for almost a year. But the timing seems odd, fuelling speculation that choice might have come into it only partially.
For starters, this is the beginning of a new fiscal year for the company - a potentially destabilising time for someone as pivotal as Lane to leave. Oracle's share price certainly made an immediate 4.6 per cent dip following the news. And it is only a matter of a few weeks since Lane was bullishly talking up the coming year's financial forecast, which is not, argue some, the act of a man about to clear his desk.
The supplier is also in the middle of an important and so far problematic strategic shift. Ellison last year memorably committed the vendor to "eating its own dog food", by which he meant that Oracle was to 'e-enable' itself in the manner it has been encouraging its customers to do for the past couple of years.
Oracle's decision to set an example has a likely purpose, however. It has been aggressively attempting to woo users over to its internet-only applications, but despite all its promptings, a mere 40 per cent have taken up the offer so far.
And this month has also seen Ellison attempt to resurrect an erstwhile vanity project, the network computer (NC). In its original 1996 incarnation, the advent of the NC was met with stony puzzlement. But now it is being reborn as a hip and trendy web appliance at a time when every other vendor the world over is pulling the same stunt, with little evidence as yet that there is any demand among either consumers or businesses.
Then there's the so-called 'garbagegate' incident. Although this has many of the hallmarks of a classic 'silly season' story, the news that Oracle paid a firm of private investigators to look into the financial links between a beleaguered Microsoft up to its neck in antitrust proceedings and supposedly independent opinion-forming organisations, has been greeted with shock.
The evidently rather maverick investigation team reportedly went as far as to buy rubbish from cleaners working at one of the companies they were surveying in the hope of finding incriminating tidbits among the coffee grounds and crumpled memos. The cleaners may feel that, with a fee of $1200 in their pockets, they got a good deal. Wags have pointed out what they believe to be an amusing irony - that the selling of overpriced garbage has been commonplace in software circles for years.
So why is Lane choosing now to heap further woes upon his employer, the man with whom he has worked so closely for so many years and with so much success? With so little information coming out from either Lane or the Oracle spin machine concerning the move, speculative analysts are having a field day.
At a crossroads
Some observers see Oracle's problems as symptomatic of the strategic crossroads the company finds itself at currently, and Lane's departure the result of disagreement over which direction to take.
Philip Carnelley, manager of applications research at market watcher Ovum, believes that Ellison's control freakery may simply have got too much for Lane. "After spending a couple of years on his yacht, Ellison has been grabbing back control of the company's direction in all sorts of ways," he says. "Nobody knows the real truth yet, but my guess is that Lane got fed up with someone looking over his shoulder all the time."
Richard Holway, managing director of analyst company Richard Holway Associates concurs, but goes further. "My guess is a policy difference between the two, where one wants Oracle to go after the really big customers and control the relationship, and the other for it to be a mass-market company." Holway casts Ellison in the former role.
However, he warns against creating a conspiracy theory culture around the Lane departure. "The fact that Lane stayed as long as he did, working with someone with such a big personality, is the really remarkable thing," he says.
Holway also considers that there are broader issues at stake. "Lane's going is important news, no doubt about it. But it won't make a lot of difference to Oracle customers. What's important is what happens next to Oracle."
However, Carnelley believes that a lot hinges on the identity of Lane's replacement. "Ellison set the vision; Lane made it happen. Without that balance things could go wrong. Whoever takes over, there will need to be clear demarcation about who is in charge of what," he says. His tip is either executive vice president Gary Bloom, or chief financial officer Jeff Henley, both of which he believes are well qualified.
Carnelley finds it hard to be too pessimistic about Oracle's future, however. "With applications now equally important to Oracle as its database sales, Oracle has got it all. There is simply no one else to rival them. If anyone thinks Oracle has had troubles, they should look at its competitors," he says.
But there is already a precedent for a software company that utterly controlled its market sector, saw off its competitors, and then hit trouble when its egotistical leader refused to buckle down under a greater power. It would be ironic indeed if Oracle, headed by an Ellison calling all the shots, were to sail into similar waters to those in which arch-rival Microsoft is presently languishing.
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