Happy New Year to all of you reading this and, as Steve Gillmor might say, all of you who are not.
2018 is poised to be a busy year. I am off to San Francisco this week and next. Salesforce’s annual analyst kick-off, a day of briefings and 1:1 discussions designed to inform folks like me as well as to solicit advice happens on Thursday. Past Salesforce events like this have been eye-openers because they expose the theory and motivations for new product introductions and provide focus for several years out. The crew at Salesforce is exceptionally well versed in how to carry this kind of thing off. For starters, they bring out technologists and executives we don’t often hear from or about. Second, they open the kimono a fair bit so what I learn might stay under NDA for a while. So safe to say that even if the temperature in Boston hadn’t been flirting with absolute zero for the last couple of weeks, I’d still be looking forward to the event.
Just to show how competitive it is in CRM and cloud computing these days, Oracle is not wasting time either. I will attend their analyst kick-off the following week. It will be a very different but still illuminating event because they have a lot to say about positioning their IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS solutions in the modern marketplace. Oracle’s recent earnings jumps show the company is once again a powerful competitor at the leading edge of a new part of the industry. Oracle’s big question/issue will be how they intend to encourage their installed base to begin the Herculean effort of moving to the cloud. Hint: favorable pricing won’t get the job done. So as much as I want to hear more about the autonomous database, self-patching, advanced security and all the rest of the technology, I’ll also be interested in understanding their perceived path to market. Two things you can be sure of is that Oracle has some of the brightest minds in the business and they don’t like failure.
We’ll talk. Watch this space or email me.
Financial analysts are in a small funk because Oracle’s earnings were not as spectacular as they’d have liked. Actually, the revenue numbers were fine; they beat the street estimates of $9.57 billion for the just completed Q2 2018 with revenues of $9.63 billion. The cause of the consternation was a relatively weak cloud growth rate of “only” 44 percent after posting 51 percent growth in the prior quarter. That’s a downward trend and thus the consternation. What explains this?
Let’s focus on human nature. Financial analysts look for eye-pleasing graphics and numbers that tell wonderful stories of increase. But the reality is always more complicated. Orders don’t ship, customer CTOs get cold feet, CEOs find new bright and shiny objects to pursue. Stuff happens. As a result, often a vendor’s numbers don’t’ look as impressive as we’d like.
One specific area of concern for Oracle has been the speed at which the market is adopting its IaaS and PaaS (infrastructure and platform) product lines. The SaaS line seems to be good. Oracle sold $1.1 billion of SaaS in Q2 making it one of the biggest SaaS companies on the planet. But it’s still struggling with infrastructure and platform which combined brought in “only” $396 million in the quarter.
The SaaS business seems to be new deals won the old fashion way. But it takes more effort to grow the other two because much of the increase is logically expected to come from Oracle’s customer base. Analysts are expecting existing customers to swarm in to the new offerings but they seem to be taking their time. The maxim, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it comes to mind.
Most enterprises have a huge investment in hardware and software, which they are naturally reluctant to discard. So while Oracle’s offer to let them migrate their existing licenses to the cloud in a program called BYOL or bring your own license, that offer is not sweet enough for many businesses with gear they’re still writing off.
At this rate it will take more than the efficiencies from better infrastructure to motivate many businesses to move, hence the disappointing numbers. But to be a bit more realistic, customers are moving to the cloud—$396 million is far from nothing. But it’s going to take more time than the optimists thought to get the migration moving at a faster clip.
At this point there are many things Oracle can do. First, it should count and publish the numbers of businesses coming to their infrastructure. This will likely represent customers gaining a toehold in the cloud. They’ll bring one application or department to the cloud as an experiment and Oracle should pay attention to this because it’s one sure method of growth.
Even if the revenue numbers are small the absolute number of businesses going to the cloud, even if only partially, will strongly suggest future acceleration. For all we know such information is already embedded in the $396 million Oracle already reported. Second, Oracle can sell platform. They do this already but perhaps some effort more squarely aimed at the small developer groups that just need a sandbox. That’s where early growth often comes from. Those groups are often oriented to Microsoft products running on AWS so the strategy works well in two directions. Lastly, when all else fails, the financial analysts could always try being a bit more patient.
My 2 bits
Moving to the cloud is an arduous event for any company. It calls for managers to tinker with the secret sauce, something they loathe. So it’s no surprise to me that moving is a slow process and that despite having all of the bells and whistles ready to go, Oracle is still in early market hurry up and wait mode. It can’t be helped—no vendor can expect to sell anything until it produces the whole product. Oracle CEO Mark Hurd is famous for saying they’ve built a skyscraper but couldn’t start renting units until the building was finished. That’s the time when financial backers begin asking about revenues.
But it takes more time than we care to admit to make a cloud. Oracle is showing some promising signs of early adoption but the situation still calls for patience.
Patience? What’s that?
Salesforce held its first event just for software developers in San Francisco last week, TrailheaDX. Previously, the company relied on special sessions such as at Dreamforce to educate developers but Salesforce’s declared intention to train up to 100 million developers in its Salesforce Lightning development environment dictated taking additional action.
The numbers vary but estimates of the number of professional developers working in the industry ranges from 100,000 to perhaps 20 million. It’s Salesforce’s dual contention that the world needs more people skilled in the development arts and that anyone should be able to learn them. The analogy they make is to products like Excel and PowerPoint, specialized applications that enable workers to support their business efforts. In the future, application development will be as essential as being able to manipulate a spreadsheet.
The comparison is apt provided that application development tools can be made as easy as using Microsoft Office products. But therein lies the rub. Application development is orders of magnitude more complex than using Office products. However, this must be balanced by the realization that not every Office user is a power-user able to write spreadsheet macros or design slides with animation. Apparently realizing this, Salesforce has developed a three-level strategy for developing working apps without any coding, with some minimal code use, and with a highly customized approach to code.
Trailhead is Salesforce’s highly automated and self-paced education program that enables people with no IT experience to go as far as they want to achieve any of the three levels of application development proficiency. Within the program, users are rewarded with badges, much like you’d expect in any gamified process, whenever they acquire new skills. This gamification will be key to the program’s success as well as to the success of the individuals receiving the training.
Salesforce is aiming at traditional developers but also at people whose backgrounds are far afield from information technology. The company sees its role as empowering people to attain employment skills that, for example, enable Salesforce administrators to customize their instances of CRM but also to build solutions that capture and manage important business data within specific processes. Historically, a lot of this kind of development has been done in spreadsheets or the data has been stored in paper files. With Trailhead training, Salesforce hopes to give many more people the skills to build such solutions.
The training is broken down into logical units focusing on things like defining objects and writing code as well as using a series of drag and drop tools that serve to reduce the need to code to a minimum. Simple solutions based on existing or simple data structures can be defined using drag and drop tools and as complexity increases so does the need to write a few lines of code.
As I look at the offering it occurs to me that greater complexity corresponds to inventing new business processes, which I believe is the whole point of having these tools in the first place. Enabling business users in this way means providing them with the agility to innovate existing business processes or to develop new ones. It’s often the ability to innovate around information that provides differentiation today so I see this capability as becoming essential.
Salesforce no doubt sees things in a similar way because the company also announced a new $50 million venture fund for its investment arm, Salesforce Ventures. The company had already announced a $100 million fund, which has been well subscribed. But it also feels that there is more opportunity for people who acquire programming skills through Trailhead not only to develop apps but also to start companies.
As a strategy this is impressive. Not only is Salesforce willing to train people (for free) in app development it is also willing to help found new companies. Today Salesforce is giving revenue guidance for its current fiscal year at more than $8 billion. For the company to continue its growth it will need to sell more generic seats of its platform services in addition to selling its conventional CRM, i.e. Sales Cloud, Marketing Cloud, and Service Cloud (there are other clouds like Wave Analytics but we’re not naming all of them here). Training more developers is a logical way to make that happen. Already, selling development seats is Salesforce’s third most successful business garnering well over $1 billion in revenues.
Trailhead is a new approach. Using e-learning students can train at their own pace in their own spaces without needing to attend formal classes. The ability to take an online test to certify a particular skill level and receive badges (there are about 130 badges to earn) lends credibility to the training rigor and makes graduates employable.
My only reservation about this approach and the goal of 100 million trained developers is that it will lead to the Über-ization of software development. When code is so easy to write that anyone can do it, we’ll see a commoditizing effect and a gradual decline in wages for developers. This won’t happen for a while but it can’t be helped because commoditization is a natural part of a successful economic trend. Right now there’s money to be made in application build-out and this condition will last for many years. It’s always best to be early in a trend.
Apple’s earnings disappointment thudded into view in the middle of an afternoon of briefings at Oracle’s Modern Marketing Experience conference in Las Vegas. In that context it gave me a lot to think about especially the difference between a one time earnings disappointment and something more serious. (1)
I have a feeling that Apple is only the most visible instance of the wheels beginning to wobble on the truck of tech. The legacy software vendors including Oracle, SAP, and Microsoft each have fundamental challenges ahead as they continue to march to the cloud. Each needs to move its considerable customer base to cloud solutions that have very different economic models and each will have to face the fact that success involves lower revenues as customers adjust to paying for subscriptions. In this scenario, success will look a lot like failure.
The way of the world
This is typical of end of paradigm situations and there isn’t much to help. For instance, textile manufacturing was once the heart of our economy but that’s moved to lower cost countries by and large. We backfilled with higher value products and services and the same is happening now with technology. Ironically though the issues and challenges faced by Apple and those companies moving to the cloud are different from a pure economic perspective.
Apple’s flagship consumer products are reaching barriers caused by market saturation and lower cost competition. The move for Apple is to innovate more consumer goods if it can but that’s a big if. There is likely a limit to how much personal gadgetry we can extract from chips and screens. Google Glass and Apple Watch might be hints of a ceiling though it’s still too early to call a trend.
Commoditization is another factor. Apple is experiencing headwinds in China, its second largest market after the U.S. Also, it sold fewer iPhones globally in the last quarter than expected due in part to stiff competition from Android devices that are lower cost and functionally competitive. Still Apple garners most of the profits from the sale of smartphones, a market whose margins are tightening with competition. We can expect this trend to continue as vendors cut prices while attempting to maintain market share.
Other shoes drop
Apple isn’t alone. Twitter is still losing money though less of it according to the latest numbers (2). The same saturation dynamic is operating for Twitter but at a much lower revenue run rate than Apple. Social media is a winner takes all market so though there aren’t very many competitors the value of a network is in the number of participants, which naturally limits the number of competitors. The dominant advertising model that social media relies on for revenues has been under pressure with other vendors like Google and Facebook having to adjust.
The legacy providers face a different problem that manifests in similar ways. As they become more successful at moving customers to the cloud, their revenues shrink and come in over longer time periods. So their year over year comparisons look worse much like Apple’s predicament even though they may be selling well.
Cloud computing was seen as a great leap forward because it gives customers much lower cost structures and it has kept that promise. But it is also a form of commoditization and I wonder how legacy vendors will replace the revenues they give up as they turn to the cloud. It’s not as though there is a choice, competition is forcing everyone to the cloud so it will take years, I think, for legacy vendors to grow enough to replace revenues they are losing in the shift.
Then, too, demand growth is reverting from an exponential growth curve to one that resembles organic population growth and this means any vendor seeking to grow will need to do it by taking share from others in a zero sum game.
What about CRM?
What happens next for CRM is speculative. The new technologies that Salesforce, Oracle and everybody else are bringing to market foretell a time when the front office employs fewer people as commoditization heats up, but that might not be a problem. The IoT is a hot idea right now with little to show of any real substance but it’s possible that the IoT will be the next bit of infrastructure that will spark exponential growth. As a communications layer it could spawn a lot of jobs as people, relieved of more mundane occupations leverage the information boiling out of the IoT to perform services that only people can do.
In some respects this is a scary time. Apple missing its number can’t be fun and neither can watching a legacy company’s earnings evaporate even as it does most things right. We’re in a transition period and if we keep our wits about us and continue to innovate in a few years we might find ourselves in an era that resembles the late 1980s.