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Discretion, valour and Sun Tzu

19th Oct 2006
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Have you read The Art of War, the treatise on battle tactics written by the sixth-century BC Chinese general Sun Tzu? Marc Benioff has. Larry Ellison has. I'm not so sure that the people over in Wallforf have read the German translation though...

One basic tenet of Sun Tzu's precepts argues that a smaller force can beat a larger one by causing its rival to respond before thinking. Ellison's used to that to magnificent effect for a quarter of a century; Benioff is using it now to rattle the cage in the applications industry.

Both men have a lot in common. Benioff used to work for Ellison. Both spearheaded an ideological and technological revolution in their industry. Both are arch marketers. Both show no shame or hesitation in winding up their rivals. And this week it became apparent that both are perfectly capable of making SAP dance to their tunes!

Ellison demonstrated this last month when he fired off a series of comments about SAP's alleged performance (mostly unsubstantiated and open to entirely different interpretations!) SAP chose to react - which was a palpable mistake as it positioned Oracle - a clear and still distant number two in the apps market - as a threat worth commenting on. It's not a mistake that Ellison himself would have made during the database wars of the 1990s.

Worse, SAP has chosen to react this week to's announcement of the Apex programming language. This one defies all reason - comparing the relative sizes and revenues of and SAP exposes the fallacy of responding in this way. Tails wagging dogs and all that. You'd think that SAP might have learned from Siebel on this front. Once got under Tom Siebel's skin, it was victory to Benioff and his team.

(Mind you, if SAP could come to terms with its own stance on the SaaS model - which seems to be "only if you must and you can always come back on premises as soon as possible" - then it might be less touchy on the subject of!)

There are occasions when discretion is the better part of competitive marketing. The art of war is a skill mastered by few. But a quick leaf through Sun Tzu would do nobody any harm...

Stuart Lauchlan
News & Analysis Editor
[email protected]

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