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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sarkozy: "La France, c'est moi"

Three hundred years ago France reached the height of authoritarian political power with Louis XIV famously saying, "L'Etat c'est moi:"  what a US president would, much later, adapt as "the buck stops here." Actually the Sun King refined his political theory under one tagline, "un seul roi, une seule loi, une seule foi":  One king (guess who), one law (his), one faith (who else's?).

Fast-forward to the 21st century and you could be excused if you wondered that so little has changed in the intervening centuries. The republican monarch presiding over the French acts as if neither time nor the little episode known as the French Revolution have occurred. Let's just mention  three recent events.

First, after their disgraceful behavior at soccer's World Cup tournament in South Africa, the French team returned home last week to widely felt opprobrium. The President immediately summoned their captain to the Elysée Palace for a dressing down, and you could tell that, had we lived in earlier time, the firing squad would have been lined up. What made this even more shocking was that on that same day, France went through a crippling strike protesting the public pension reforms the Sarkozy administration had launched. With millions of protesters on the streets (I could hear the deafening noise from my apartment by the Bastille) doesn't the President, people wondered, have other more pressing matters  to attend to than to admonish the national soccer team for a dreadful performance? 

Then, his only reaction was that those reforms were made even more necessary by the economic crisis and that people should accept a reduction in their incomes and purchasing power until the budget deficit was brought under control. Nothing wrong with that idea, except that it never crossed Sarko's mind that he could apply that maxim to himself: after all did he not increase his salary by 172% when he became president, one of the first decisions of his presidency? Of course not: as Louis XIV would have said, there are two sets of rules: one for me (summarized in that old principle that "the King can do no wrong") and another one for all other mortals.

Finally,  when France's most prestigious newspaper, Le Monde (our response to The New York Times), announced it was up for sale and bids started coming in, Sarkozy thought nothing of summoning the publisher to tell him that he was dead against a triumvirate made up of Bergé (Yves St-Laurent's partner) and two other businessmen buying the paper. Some of the President's advisers must have reminded him that Le Monde was an independent paper operating in a country with nominal  press freedom. He probably brushed their concerns away, convinced of his (God-given?) right to run the country like his personal possession. 

Have we degenerated to such an extent that we have become a banana republic (without the bananas) run by the latest avatar of Idi Amin Dada or Saddam Hussein? I was delighted to hear yesterday that Le Monde’s staff (who are entitled to choose the new owner) went straight for... exactly whom the President hated. There is hope after all. All it takes is a few courageous men to stand up to the bully-in-chief. A heartening message a few days before Bastille Day, I reflect looking at the column symbolizing the end of dictatorship on Place de la Bastille. We have doubtless come a long way - but there is still a long way to go.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Oracle to demo Fusion HCM in September - Hallelujah!

And better late than never. Waiting for Fusion HCM reminds me of Beckett's play "Waiting for Godot" where you wait and wait and wait just to find out there is no Godot at all. Now, I'm sure Gretchen Alarcon (VP, Product Strategy, Oracle HCM) will have something to demo, but if past Oracle behavior is anything to go by the demo will be a big anti-climax. 

After five years of press releases and PowerPoints which showed that Fusion existed only in the (manifestly wild) imagination of Oracle executives, the demo (probably concocted a few days before) will try to give the impression that all of Oracle HRMS and PeopleSoft HCM functionality has made it into this next-generation product (which so far has no name nor do we know if it's going to be on-demand or a plug-in to the current products). The truth of the matter is that, probably built around  the Talent Management offering to counter the rising threat from the Taleos and SuccessFactors towards which Oracle/PeopleSoft customers are flocking in droves, it will, at best, consist of some PeopleSoft bells and whistles added to Oracle eBS code. What usually goes by the phrase "lipstick on a pig." And how can it be otherwise? Gretchen's team may have gathered their requirements accurately but when they passed them on to the Product Development side they were met with a "Sorry, too many competing demands chasing too few resources" (remember they are all working on Oracle, PeopleSoft and Fusion, that is three HCM parallel tracks), "so you'll be lucky if you get 20% of what you asked for." Meaning they'll end up testing and releasing far less. And don't forget that many Oracle and PeopleSoft HCM customers are large, global companies with operations in many countries, with the need to be supported by several localizations. Do you think that all the countries that Oracle and PeopleSoft support now will make it into Fusion? 

To help you with the answer remember that when Oracle had just one HCM product in the 90's/00's it took them 10 years to add a fourth payroll country (France) to an illustrious EMEA list including the UK, Ireland and South Africa. And then for several years they couldn't find any French company to buy it due to the crummy quality of the localized product (as far as I know today they are still looking for that ever elusive customer.) Not even Oracle France wants to use it! Any doubts? Just pay attention to the first slide Gretchen will present (no Oracle demo is complete without slideware, sometimes that's all it consists of): it will have a General Disclaimer that will warn you that Oracle does not commit in any way, shape or form to anything your eyes might have seen or your ears heard. 

So, Fusion HCM (or whatever name they decide to call it) is going to premiere at HR Tech? Great! Just make sure it's right after lunch, so that I can enjoy a quiet nap while watching the demo.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Apple passes Microsoft as most valuable technology company - And rightly so

Last Monday morning saw me, under a flawlessly blue sky, walking down Madrid's answer to Broadway, the Gran Via, built exactly 100 years ago. It took much less time for another momentous event to take place this very week: Apple passed Microsoft as the world's largest technology company, based on market capitalization. As luck would have it the company's latest venture, the iPad, had just premiered in Spain so when I reached the mid-point of the avenue, Plaza del Callao, I looked at the FNAC store (Europe's equivalent of Best Buy) and, although not a sucker for gizmos, I decided to try my luck: maybe there wouldn't be that many people and I would be able to see with my own eyes what the fuss was all about. I was in luck: of the three iPads available for customers to play with, one was free so I ravenously hurled myself onto it. Many better qualified people have already reviewed the tablet so there is little point for me to add my voice to them. Suffice it to say that apart from the rotation feature which tended to be quite slow when it worked, and the question about whether one would want to watch a movie or read a book on a screen smeared with finger marks (unsure how a long time spent on the screen is easy on the eye, either), I found the device quite alluring. Thin, compact, easy to manipulate with an excellent user interface. No small wonder Apple fans went mad about it, even if it is quite pricey, especially when taking into account all the accessories that, manifestly, one can only buy from Apple.
On the way out of the store and as I walked to my lunch appointment I couldn't shake off my admiration: here's one high-tech company whose success is entirely justified by the great products it makes. How ironic and entirely justified that it overtook Microsoft,  it of the dreadful products one has become so used to. Have we become such masochistic customers that we see nothing of constant crashes, virus attacks and poor functionality that for so long we made Microsfoft into the most valuable tech company in the world? What's wrong with us? What's wrong with them? How come that Apple keeps remaining so innovative, churning out great products one after the other, when Microsoft consistently fails? Office products were all copied from the likes of WordPerfect and Supercalc or bought such as PowerPoint, Windows Vista was an utter failure barely redeemed by Windows 7. Bill Gates' company spends year in and year out north of $6 billion on R&D, and what do they have to show for it? They can't even fix the security issues that makes using their software such a headache. Just like their corporate equivalent, Oracle, which spent billions of dollars to develop business applications through the '90's and mid-2000's only to end up buying their competitors as it realized it was throwing good money after bad products. What is the issue here?
I don't presume to have the answer, but there's clearly a special alchemy missing in Redmond/wood and which Steve Jobs has hit upon: innovation spirit, risk taking, dedicated product managers, enthusiatic customers (actually Apple customers have become so loyal that they behave more like fans) all the right ingredients are repeatedly mixed to produce the same results: great products people are willing to spent a whole night out in order to be the first one to buy them. Will the secret recipe go sour one day? Maybe, probably (remember that back in the 1980's Apple had a near-death experience) but in the meantime the going can't get any better. Or can it?