by Thomas Wailgum

Oracle vs. SAP: Like Mac vs. PC, Without the Funny Ads

Oct 19, 2009
Enterprise Applications

The two big boys of ERP woo customers with styles that could not be more different. But who's really winning?

As a buyer of enterprise software, what do you really want from your vendor’s leadership? I’ve asked and explored this question before, in various ways and formats during the years at CIO.

After attending my first Oracle OpenWorld show last week in San Francisco, it became clear to me that the Oracle vs. SAP competition and debate—which I’ve been investigating for a couple of years now, attempting to bring some clarity to the and CIO magazine readership—has become less about actual software products and more about the marketing chutzpah from company leaders.

In other words, who’s really nailed that “vision thing.”

Larry Ellison Leo Apotheker
Differing Styles: Larry and Leo

To even the most casual observer, the two high-tech titans couldn’t be more different. (Think: Mac vs. PC; I’ll let you figure out who’s who.)

SAP and Oracle both sell Big Boy software, of course. But that’s about where the similarities end. In my experiences in watching and dealing with them, the differences are stark, obvious and intentional: How they each treat customers, partners and the media; how they refer to the other; their marketing tactics; their CEOs; and the company culture as evidenced at their corporate get-togethers, such as the OpenWorld show and SAP’s annual Sapphire show (last year held in Orlando).

Just look at this year’s OpenWorld and Sapphire conferences. Here’s your sizzle at OpenWorld: Larry Ellison’s constant thrashing of IBM and grandiose stage theatrics; Aerosmith in concert (leading with “Eat the Rich,” by the way); and a glitzy appearance by California’s Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Your razzle-dazzle at Sapphire: Hmmm…a rather dry keynote by CEO Leo Apotheker titled “Seeing Your Way Clear in the New Reality.”

Perhaps it was just the uncertainty around Oracle Fusion Apps and Sun Microsystems’ deal that permeated OpenWorld, or maybe the deluge of rain in San Francisco, or the Blue Angels flying so close to the buildings, but Oracle, on the whole, doesn’t ever seem bothered by taking on risk or the unknown—for its customers or partners or conference attendees—in the way that SAP appears to steadfastly pursue the exact opposite approach.

SAP’s historical message has been: Judge us on the merits and sophistication of our technology products, and you will be impressed.

Oracle, on the other hand, says: We will convince you that we can take care of all your needs now and in the future, even though we don’t know exactly what that’s going to look like or what products we’ll have in our stable, so don’t bother talking to anyone else…and oh, by the way, Larry Ellison has an impressive yacht.

Of course, I’m not intimating that these are the official corporate lines, or, in fact, one is better than the other. Both messages can be convincing, for sure, yet both are flawed in their own ways. But they obviously have worked well during the past couple of decades.

As of late, both vendors have been wisely preaching openness and integration, a key message that executives have told me is in response to the enormous frustration they’ve been hearing from their customers for several years.

But as the enterprise software world consolidates even more, creating just a few “supervendors,” I believe it’s going to come down to these two camps, despite the “open” corporate rhetoric.

So are you an Oracle shop or an SAP lifer? And are you ready to make that fateful decision?

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