CEO showdown: Apotheker vs. Ellison vs. Palmisano

What if you put Oracle's Larry Ellison and IBM's Sam Palimisano to the same test HP's Léo Apotheker endured last week?

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Palmisano's latest appearance was at IBM's March 8 investor briefing on the "Jeopardy" soundstage, the site of Watson's TV triumph. The speech was notable for its bullish predictions of IBM cloud revenue: a $7 billion "opportunity," according to Palmisano. He also had a 15 percent year-over-year increase in earnings per share to crow about.

The best part was Palmisano's no-nonsense definition of cloud computing. "All cloud is, is the next technical shift in the enterprise," he said, twice, answering what he called a need for clarity about the cloud. "It gives [enterprises] a more efficient platform to deliver IT services -- that's applications in the past, now referred to as services -- highly virtualized, scalable, secure."

This, of course, is a concise definition of the private cloud. IBM no longer sells to consumers, nor does it offer enterprise applications (other than BI and analytics), so it serves IBM's purposes to define the cloud as the private cloud -- for which the company sells big bucks' worth of services, software, and hardware. But the definition is also a defensible one: Public cloud services above all need the private cloud technology Palmisano is talking about.

Palmisano put a stake in the ground with that definition. That's the kind of thing CEOs are supposed to do. He also skillfully wove the cloud and IBM's adventures in Big Data (including Watson) into the Smarter Planet narrative IBM began spinning in 2008. Palmisano is no Steve Jobs rock star, but he's a straight shooter as CEOs go, and he gave a clear and compelling statement of the company's direction.

Apotheker at the crossroads

As for Apotheker, give him credit for addressing today's top three tech trends head-on: mobile, cloud, and Big Data. Yes, the plans for a public cloud offering were short on details, and he went overboard on the buzz phrases. But at least he provided the outlines of a technology vision and direction for the company, which is something HP has been lacking for too long.

Offstage, Apotheker also identified a missing human element, which he described in a recent Businessweek article: HP has "lost its soul." In a 45-minute interview last week with IDG Enterprise Chief Content Officer John Gallant and me, he elaborated: "HP is a company that had a very distinct way of being. HP is not just any other company. There's a history behind us: the HP way. And over the last years, I think that the HP way has been oppressed a bit, and the HP way is the soul, the heart and soul of HP."

And what would bring that back? He said, "Customer-centric innovation that HP was extremely good at. HP was always great at identifying next technologies and really bringing them to market not as technologies, but as things that people could actually, immediately use." Apotheker went on to cite Vertica as an example, but his emphasis on public rather than private cloud follows the same line of bringing usable products rather than just enabling technologies to customers.

After a couple of cost-cutting HP CEOs who seemed more interested in making the company look good to investors than in "the HP way," Apotheker deserves respect for wanting to make his employees, in his words, "proud to wear the HP badge" again. That recognizes the morale problem at HP and acknowledges that his company needs a real narrative. Apotheker has not yet spun a yarn anywhere near as elegant as Palmisano's, but then again, he's only been on the job for four months.

HP, unlike Oracle and IBM, has seen its stock lose value over the past year. It took a big hit after Mark Hurd's sudden exit and saw another sharp dip in response to the company's latest quarterly earnings report. When times are good, you're a genius, even if you're goofing off. When they aren't, nobody's going to cut you slack until you turn the damn thing around.

This article, "CEO showdown: Apotheker vs. Ellison vs. Palmisano," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog, and for the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

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