Larry Ellison has stepped down as chief executive of Oracle, marking the end of an era in the technology market.
Ellison was perhaps the last CEO left to have been at the vanguard of the technological revolution of the last 30 years, alongside contemporaries (and friends) Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.
However, while Jobs and Apple and Gates and Microsoft are household names, Oracle and Ellison are unknown to most outside the world of IT and big business.
This is not because Ellison hasn't tried, though.
He’s worth roughly $50bn, owns a Hawaiian island, almost single-handedly bankrolls the America's Cup and even had a cameo in Iron Man 2.
So it's no surprise that while Ellison is stepping down as CEO, the 70-year-old will not spend his free time playing golf, but instead he will serve as both executive chairman of the Oracle board and the firm's chief technology officer.
Furthermore, Safra Catz and Mark Hurd will both become CEOs – clearly it takes two people to replace Ellison. They will report to the board (run by Ellison) and all software and hardware engineering functions will report to Ellison as well.
With all this in mind it’s worth asking: is Ellison still in charge?
New business cards for all
Gartner analyst Chad Eschinger agreed that, while the initial news appeared a shock, on closer inspection little has changed.
“In some ways, this little more than a shift of job titles,” he told V3. “I think it’s a baby step for Larry to progress away from the day-to-day operations of the company and hand over the reigns to senior executives.”
Helena Schwenk of MWD Advisors agreed, saying that, while their were echoes of Bill Gates leaving Microsoft in 2008, Ellison was clearly sticking around.
"What’s different here [compared to Gates] is that Ellison remains in control of the overall technical direction of the company since he’s now appointed himself CTO," she told V3.
"It’s debatable whether this will fundamentally change the company dynamics and more importantly its strategic direction from a technology standpoint especially considering Larry’s forthright nature and very hands-on management style."
Forrester analyst John Rymer agreed too: "Regardless of his title, we expect Ellison will still make the important decisions at Oracle."
With this in mind Katz and Hurd may well be wondering what power they actually have. However, Clive Longbottom founder of analyst firm Quocirca, believes the pair's existing track record at Oracle means they have the clout to make an impact.
“With Catz now being at the top, we could see Oracle become far more of an applications company, further eroding its prior dependency on the database market. It is unlikely that Hurd would stand in the way, as he was a supporter of software at HP.”
But as Longbottom's comment notes, with two CEOs taking control of the company there is always a risk of clashes that could hold the business back, although he believes the two do have complementary skillsets to make this work.
"As long as Hurd focuses on being the talking head and general business operations guy and Catz concentrates on more behind the scenes stuff, it could work," he said.
Schwenk said she also believed the dual-CEO approach could work, as the precedent set by Oracle rivals SAP proved. "I’m intrigued by the co-CEO approach especially since it’s so rare. It did work for a time at SAP but inevitably one personality tends to dominate and in SAP’s case this was Bill McDermott with his ambitious and sales-orientated approach," she said.
"It will be interesting to compare the similarities and difference in the approach at both Oracle and SAP once these changes have been bedded in."
Eschinger added that Ellison's continued involvement with Oracle could benefit the firm if the dual-CEO approach causes problems: “Larry is still there so there is an ultimate authority if there’s a stalemate in terms of a decision."
Eschinger said he wouldn't be surprised if over the year the dual-CEO role morphed into a single leader in the years ahead.
For now, though, the future is about Hurd and Katz and the challenges that Oracle faces. Cloud is undoubtedly one area that needs attention, with Katz claiming the company has a "laser focused" on the market.
This underlines how far the company has come with Ellison well known for being somewhat more sceptical about the cloud. “What the hell is cloud computing?" he once famously said.
Schwenk said it was important for Oracle to improve its cloud performance as the market shifts to this form of IT delivery.
"Oracle (like other software companies) has more to do to transform from its traditional enterprise model of on-premise software and services towards a more blended approach that takes into account the shift towards delivering some software and services in the cloud," she said.
How this plays out with new products and services will be of keen interest to Oracle customers, as underlined by the UK Oracle User Group (UKOUG), which welcomed the news of the transition.
"UKOUG believes this succession will enable a successful transition and allow our members to be confident in their Oracle investments and future product roadmaps," said UKOUG president David Warburton-Broadhurst.
They don't have long to wait. Oracle's annual OpenWorld bash is taking place in just over a week's time, and it should provide an interesting insight into how the new power shift at Oracle will be played out in public and who's really in charge.
When you're the CEO and founder you can get away with that kind of behaviour. Whether Katz and Hurd would feel as comfortable doing the same, with Ellison still retaining major control of the company, is doubtful.
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