My mate Larry Ellison

Larry Ellison on stage.

Larry Ellison on stage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Each year I say I’m not going to go this time and each year I end up going. It’s not that I don’t enjoy Oracle Openworld. San Francisco is a fantastic place to visit and the conference, with over 60,000 attendees, is impressive in scale and ambition. But it’s another long haul flight; another weekend up in smoke; another week away from home. Once the novelty wears off, it loses its lustre.

The fact that this year’s conference coincided with the Americas Cup finals in San Francisco bay added more pizzazz and I looked forward to grabbing an opportunity to see the boats. The bay makes an impressive backdrop, with Alcatraz sandwiched between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge (arguably the prettier of the two). The boats make an impressive spectacle, but the race itself is impossible to fathom from ground level. Where it really comes into its own is on a big screen with overlaid graphics showing speeds and the distance between the two boats.

Probably more impressive still is Larry Ellison, the gregarious founder and CEO of Oracle. Just like Steve Jobs, he was both adopted and a University drop out. Today he is the world’s 5th richest man and a self-declared legend. One of the most often hear jokes about Larry; “What’s the difference between God and Larry Ellison?  God doesn’t believe he’s Larry Ellison.”

His keynote speeches are something to behold. Full of superlatives about how amazing his new software, hardware or combination thereof happen to be. These claims are typically outlandish and difficult to disprove. If Steve Jobs had a reality distortion field, he bought it from Larry.

One thing that tickles me is his inconsistency. I remember watching him one year denouncing cloud as a ridiculous fad. The very next year, Oracle were more cloudy than a cumulonimbus! One year, he was on stage with his counterpart from HP telling the world what strong partners they were. Shortly afterwards, Oracle announced that support for HP’s Itanium machine would soon cease. Shortly afterwards they ran a highly publicised cash for clunkers campaign persuading people to trade in HP hardware for shiny new Oracle machines.

There is no doubt who’s in charge. He reportedly cancelled one of his keynotes because it clashed with an Americas Cup race! But my favourite Larry story came from one of my fellow delegates. Apparently he once spoke to Larry and asked him what his favourite exercise was.

“Basketball.” said Larry. “I like to play it on my yacht.”

“But doesn’t the ball keep flying off the side?”

“That’s OK, I have a guy in a speedboat who zips around collecting the balls!”

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The rise and fall of the apple empire

Roman Forum and surroundings

Roman Forum and surroundings (Photo credit: KayYen)

History is littered with stories of civilisations that have grown in stature until they are too big to sustain. Once the edges are so far from the heart, people forget what it was all about and the empire implodes more dramatically than it grew. We studied two of them in history at school; the Greeks and the Romans.

Today, in a way, it’s difficult to imagine Greece having that much power which is ironic because they probably have more influence on the fate of Europe than any other country right now. The same goes for the Romans. As I was growing up, I was fed on a diet of World War 2 films and commando comics. In these, Italians were the guys with rubbish equipment who spent half their time retreating and the other half surrendering.

We British have had our imperial moments, but we are very much in decline as far as empires go. One by one, the countries that were once coloured pink on my ancient, dented globe have decided that they want to be independent of British rule.

The same thing is happening more and more to big companies now. If you travelled back in time a few years, Nokia and RIM were unstoppable in the mobile phone market. Today, they seem to be in terminal decline. When I was growing up, the word Kodak was synonymous with cameras. It looks like they will wink out of existence once they milk the last bit of value out of their patent portfolio.

There are some eternal survivors out there. IBM have been in trouble before but bounced back. Microsoft had a near death experience when they dismissed the Internet as a fad before waking up and smelling the coffee. Apple have been on the ropes before in the years between Steve Jobs leaving and rejoining, but today they are going from strength to strength.

But Steve Jobs is no more.

I have just upgraded to iOS 6, and although, in general, I am a fan of all things Apple – I am not happy. As part of iOS 6, the once fantastic maps app powered by Google has been replaced by an app produced by Apple. It is inferior in just about every way you can imagine. Yes it has 3D views of the major cities in the world, which is a neat trick where it works, but it feels like a gimmick you play with for half an hour and forget about.

Steve Jobs would never have let it out the door. I can’t help but feel that this is the turning point in the fate of Apple. Of course they have huge resources upon which to draw as did the Romans.

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Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have found Steve Jobs biography to be tough going. It’s not the writing, it’s the subject. Before I started reading the book, I had no real image of Steve Jobs in my head other than his public persona. The more I read of his life story, the less I find myself liking him. I try to persevere – but it’s hard work.

So I was interested to see Walter Isaacson, the author presenting at IBM’s Impact conference last week. I didn’t really know much about him either, but it turns out that Steve Jobs is not the only subject of his biographies. He has also written the life stories of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. Apparently, Steve Jobs approached him and asked why not do his biography next. Walter joked about Jobs thinking his name being the next name in the sequence after Einstein & Franklin showing a distinct lack of humility.

He argued that smart people are relatively common, but what set his subjects apart was imagination. He told the story about Steve Jobs painting a fence with his father. Confounded by his suggestion to apply as much care and attention to the back of the fence as to the front, Steve Jobs asked why – who will know? His father told Jobs that he would know. That notion of caring obsessively about every facet of his products extended throughout his career.

Walter went on to say that innovation requires passion and curiosity. Einstein’s father gave him a childhood gift of a compass. He became fascinated with the idea of magnetic fields and Maxwell’s equations They state that the speed of the magnetic field remains constant regardless of your speed or direction. Einstein couldn’t understand why this would be the case until he fathomed out the theory of relativity.

As a young man, Benjamin Franklin spent a lot of time on ships going to and fro across the Atlantic Ocean. He couldn’t understand why the journey was shorter going one way than the other. So he began experimenting by pulling buckets behind the ship and sampling the water as the ship travelled. Through experimentation, he discovered that the water in one direction was warmer than the other which accounted for the ease of passage.

Benjamin Franklin was also very open and collaborative, which Walter argued was also important to innovation. He told a story about the declaration of independence which because of my lack of familiarity with the document didn’t mean that much to me, but I assume it illustrated his point. Paradoxically – Apple is not what you would describe as an open and collaborative company but there you go.

The slogan from Apple’s famous Orwellian advertising campaign was “Think Different” which all of Isaacson’s subjects live up to.

So, will my Steve Jobs biography become easier having seen the author himself. Unfortunately – probably not. But I am tempted to try another of Walter’s books. He is currently working on a history of computing which sounds like it would be right up my street.