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Shady Illuminations

Notes Toward an Unauthorized Biography of Larry Ellison

by John Shade

Generic image illustrating the article
  Larry Ellison owns Sun. That may be good, it may be bad, but it will definitely be interesting.  

Bill Gates must be the most boring billionaire in the world. With the most annoying voice. And what’s even more annoying, he wasn’t born boring. He used to crash computers deliberately and go joy-riding in his Porsche or in stolen earth-moving equipment. But somewhere along the way, it seems like noblesse oblige overcame him—I’m guessing it was around his 22nd birthday—and he’s been boring ever since. Fortunately, some billionaires understand that when you have so much money that you can do anything, you have an obligation to do just that. You can not be boring.

Larry Ellison is never boring. While Bill Gates appeared in a Microsoft commercial with Jerry Seinfeld—and that’s post-Seinfeld Seinfeld—Larry Ellison had a cameo in Iron Man II playing himself. He could be that guy Carly Simon wrote about.

You’re So Vain

Larry has a drained swimming pool in the back yard of his Woodside, California, home that he uses as a sub-woofer for his stadium-scale home entertainment center.

He races yachts. He races cars. He flies jets. He performs nose-bleed-inducing low-altitude aerobatics in his Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet.

He owns almost as many houses as John McCain. He’s trying to find a cure for aging, although not specifically for John McCain.

He’s the one and only Larry. Really. Oracle employees say that nobody else in the company can be called Larry. If that’s your name, you have to become a Lawrence, or a Daphne, or whatever. Oracle can have only one Larry.

Why Can’t Gaza Be More Like Woodside?

But I have to say, it gives me hope for peace in the Middle East when I observe a Muslim and a Jew being such close friends. Steve Jobs even acted as the official photographer at his best bud Larry Ellison’s wedding. And Larry was the ring-bearer at Steve’s coronation in The Return of the King.

I realize that Steve and Larry both seem to think that they’re Buddhists, but I say that’s an affectation. I don’t believe they’re real Buddhists, like Richard Gere. Steve’s birth father was Syrian and Larry’s birth mother was Jewish, so I say they’re a Muslim and a Jew and I’m sticking with that until I see their papers.

I guess it’s not surprising that Steve and Larry should be pals. When you’re a born-out-of-wedlock faux-Buddhist billionaire computer industry founder/CEO, you naturally gravitate toward other born-out-of-wedlock faux-Buddhist billionaire computer industry founder/CEOs in the neighborhood.

Embrace Your Inner Pyromaniac

Apparently space has a smell. Astronauts report that articles that have been in space, when returned to atmosphere, have a distinct smell. They smell like gunpowder. If napalm is the smell of victory, gunpowder is the smell of space. Which can’t help but please Larry.

“I’m not a guy who just blows stuff up in the desert,” Mike Workman told Forbes Life magazine. “This really is an art. The sky is a canvas, and you get to paint.” Workman heads Pillar Data Systems, a company that Larry Ellison’s venture capital firm funded, but data processing is not the only thing the two have in common. “When Larry Ellison found out about my fireworks habit,” Workman said, “he was thrilled.”

Well, why wouldn’t he be? Larry’s into pranks. “It was an adolescent prank,” he said in another context, “I highly recommend it.”

Culture Clash Wedding

Which makes me think that the culture clash with the Sun managers might not be that bad. Sun has historically had a culture of high-concept pranks. And of course “the network is the computer,” at least sounds like support for the Network Computer.

Satori with the engineering staff might be harder to achieve.

While Larry might be confident about the future of Solaris, he’s not sharing his plans, and that makes people nervous. The OpenSolaris developers don’t trust Oracle and are on the verge of forking the code base. The MySQL community isn’t buying Oracle’s assurances and anticipates changes that they arent’t going to like. Java developers aren’t in active revolt, but Elvis has left the arena. And the once-free-wheeling Sun employee blogs have been shut down.

I don’t even want to ask what’s going on with ZFS.

Vertigo Integration

So why did Larry want to buy Sun, anyway?

Vertical integration, we’re told. Sun’s server and storage technology plus Java combined with Oracle’s database software, middleware, and applications, let Oracle place its hand much deeper in the customer’s pocket. Larry wants to pack up everything you need to sell gold coins and bars or splice genes or cap oil spills, whatever your business is, in something called an “industry in a box.”

All he wants is everything: the Whole Enchilada, total control of the entire profit pump in an end-to-end, top-to-bottom, soup-to-nuts, cradle-to-grave strategy so vertically integrated it makes your head swim and your nose bleed. The model for this, of course, is the shiny 21st Century Apple. Whose model is in turn stodgy nobody-ever-got-fired-for-recommending-it mid-20th Century IBM.

Vertical integration? Really? Color me skeptical, but don’t trust my opinion. I’m probably wrong. It’s just that Larry’s high-flown ambition leaves me a little dizzy, wondering if I’m not catching just a whiff of gunpowder.

Who Do You Think You Are, Larry Ellison?

But this stratospheric vision could work. Larry Ellison generally gets whatever he wants. He got the America’s Cup. He got his own rules for flying out of the San Jose Airport. He got the biggest yacht in the world. He got Steve Jobs as his wedding photographer. He got Pepper Potts to say to Tony Stark, “Who do you think you are, Larry Ellison?”

Oh, so now James Gosling quits on him? I’m sure he’ll just get a new James Gosling. You know, like Stark got a new James “Rhodey” Rhodes. Snap his fingers and suddenly Don Cheadle is the new Father of Java. The real father. James Gosling was just its birth father.

Larry Ellison is his own paradigm. He’s lean and agile, yet proven to scale. Even when he’s wrong (the Network Computer), he can stubbornly keep flogging the bad idea until the world changes and it becomes a good idea. His ego, a thing of legend, is probably by now too big to fail. As I said, he’s never boring.

At least that’s how it looks from my barstool tonight.

John Shade was born in Montreux, Switzerland on a cloudy day in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. He approves of the negativity of NoSQL and wishes readers to know that if they find any errors in this article, they are #nickcleggsfault.

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