Why smack talking works for Oracle's Larry Ellison

There are a lot of things you could say about Oracle co-founder and chief executive Larry Ellison, but being shy certainly is not one of them.

He called the HP board “idiots” for firing Mark Hurd, dissed the selection of former SAP chief Léo Apotheker as “madness” and mocked SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner’s “wild Einstein hair.” In short, he is out and loud–and he wants the market to know about it.

Bloomberg Businessweek just published a profile on Oracle’s perennially “smack-talking”, one that declares, “Thank heavens for Larry Ellison.”

Ellison, you see, manages to be best at taking “a relatively boring database company, [and] focusing on the most exciting things,” says Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com. Benioff is a former Oracle executive and current Ellison target.

This in turn leads to barbs about everything from rivals to executive shake-ups at the firm, without which, the piece posits, Oracle would merely be “huge, crucial—and boring.” (Stone and Ricadela lament that trend causes most tech titans’ products to “put regular folks to sleep faster than a Senate hearing on Net neutrality.”)

Oracle spokeswoman Deborah Hellinger naturally declined to comment.

Ellison’s not just shouting into the wind either. Whether in e-mails to the Wall Street Journal, internal staff meetings, calls with analysts or just plain old confrontations with rivals, the world’s sixth richest man never manages to leave his opinions unheard.

But there is a method to this madness, says Businessweek. As software companies like Oracle move into hardware—and  hardware rivals like HP into software—the lines are becoming increasingly blurred over whose turf belongs to whom, and for how long.

This is the most likely reason Ellison has spent the last few months on the offense, tossing out quotes like “[HP] pick[s] a guy who was recently fired because he did such a bad job of running SAP…The HP board needs to resign en masse” and “Referring to [Bill] Gates as the smartest man in America isn’t right…Wealth isn’t the same thing as intelligence.”

As such, the main theme tying together the profile is clear: All the smack-talking in the world won’t frighten off competition newly revived by the social networking revolution and the opportunities now afforded by an influx of venture capital, mergers and buyouts.

“We had 15 years of relative peace where everyone had their own patches and you had all these wonderful camps and coalitions,” says James Alexander, senior vice-president of Info-Tech Research Group, in the piece. “Now these guys need to keep driving top-line revenues and market share, and the only way to do that is through acquisitions and getting into somebody else’s business.”

The bottom line, Businessweek says, is that his “public attacks on rivals aren’t just theater—they’re a barometer of heightened competition in enterprise computing.” But will it be enough theater to distract shareholders and investors from Oracle’s future strategies in this brave new world?

I would say: Ask Larry.