At the first few Collaborate conferences after Oracle acquired PeopleSoft and JD Edwards then President Charles Phillips gave the opening keynote speech. A key message was that Oracle cared deeply about all of its application customers and especially those new to Oracle. I was fortunate enough to interview him on two of those occasions. His candid and articulate style added a great deal to those events and helped make our community feel welcome and wanted.

The final time Phillips appeared was via a taped message played as part of the opening keynote. It was not the kind of polished presentation that Phillips was known for and did not convey much information of value. Phillips left Oracle only a few months later so it was not surprising in hindsight that his heart did not seem to be in the presentation to Collaborate.

Last year when Collaborate was in Orlando many of us wondered if Mark Hurd, Phillips replacement and former H-P CEO, would deliver a keynote or at least appear via video. That did not happen. At that time Hurd had been at Oracle for a little over 6 months and it was not clear what his duties included. Oracle did not send anyone else to provide an overview of company direction.

Last September when Oracle Open World rolled around many of us wondered how big a role Hurd would take there. The answer was almost none. He just appeared briefly two times essentially as MC and traffic cop. As usual, CEO Larry Ellison limited his appearance to one major speech dedicated largely to talking about new hardware appliances. The net result was that OpenWorld passed without an attempt by Oracle to communicate much beyond plans for individual product lines.

At Collaborate next week the closest we will get to a member of Ellison’s inner circle is a keynote by Oracle’s CIO Mark Sunday about internal use of its own products. Obviously now that Phillips is gone Oracle is content to let its products speak for themselves and to not attempt to communicate a corporate strategy. This is certainly Oracle’s prerogative, but it does leave those of us whose working lives are impacted by what Oracle does in the difficult position of having to guess what might come next.

Without the benefit of a corporate overview we will be left to speculate about things such as the impact Fusion Applications will have on the application suites we depend on. There will be no way to judge whether Ellison’s recent obsession with hardware appliances will continue to be the center of Oracle’s world or if he has started to move on to something else. Recent media reports indicate that while some of the newer appliances are doing well, overall Oracle is rapidly losing market share to IBM and H-P. Apparently both Herd and Ellison are largely preoccupied manning the pumps in an attempt to keep the hardware business afloat.

So far there is no evidence that the attention diverting decision to focus on hardware in recent years has hurt the application products that we all care greatly about. What we will never know is what might have happened if that energy had been focused in our direction. Oracle remains great at producing technology products and relentlessly enhancing them so that buyers remain loyal. Hopefully, the hardware misadventure will not have a long-term negative impact on the applications that we care greatly about.

Fusion Applications are supposed to be the next big thing for us to look forward to. It remains hard to get an exact fix on how they are evolving and when they will be ready for ordinary organizations to adopt. Hopefully, Collaborate will provide some useful insights into this and other big picture issues that attendees will bring to the conference.

Without an attempt by Oracle to explain itself, we will likely be forced to try to make sense of how the pieces fit together on our own. During and after Collaborate I will offer the best view I can. Tea leaf reading by semi-informed people like me is a poor substitute for hearing directly from Oracle executives as to what direction the company is headed, but it may have to do.