The 10 Most Controversial Companies Of 2015

Creating Controversy

Seems like some technology vendors just can't stay out of the headlines -- they just can't stop themselves from stirring up controversy, or they're magnetically drawn into drama by their industry alliances. From making bombastic claims about their products, to trash talking rivals large and small, to actions that upset customers and partners, these vendors are never too far removed from friction.

Some old-school vendors have, over the years, carefully cultivated this practice, to the point where it has become a part of their marketing strategy. They bask in seemingly every opportunity to draw attention to themselves. But other vendors just bring attention through the questionable behavior of a few employees -- or sometimes, even just one.

This year's compendium of controversial companies includes many of the usual suspects, along with a few new ones. We should note, while controversy is often connected to negative actions, in this list we've endeavored to include some vendors that have used controversy as a tool, or even a weapon.

Following are CRN's picks for the 10 most controversial tech companies of 2015.

10. Oracle

Oracle didn't build a $160 billion-plus market capitalization over the past 38 years by being nice, and this year was all about showing all these high-and-mighty cloud vendors (looking at you, Amazon Web Services) that their reign atop the market heap is about to end.

Oracle spent this year's quarterly earnings calls making fun of SAP's cloud business and thumbing its corporate nose at Software-as-a-Service vendors like and Workday. No one else can match Oracle's momentum in SaaS and Platform-as-a-Service, Chief Technology Officer Larry Ellison and co-CEOs Safra Catz and Mark Hurd stressed during the calls.

Yet some partners and industry watchers say Oracle's claims of cloud growth are misleading because its sales reps are cramming cloud credits into every deal, whether the customer wants them or not. Some assert that Oracle is stepping up licensing audits and offering resolution to out-of-compliance customers who agree to buy its cloud services.

Oracle, the honey badger of enterprise software, won't be stopped in its quest to be viewed as a top cloud player. Whether customers believe this view remains to be seen.

9. Apple

Apple, despite making (mostly) gorgeously designed products that make people want to stand outside in line all night just to be the first to get them, somehow always manages to be part of one IT industry dust-up or another.

This year, we saw one of Apple's vendor hostilities reach a settlement. In early December, Samsung agreed to pay Apple $548 million to settle a nearly 5-year-old legal battle over patent infringement in the iPhone and iPad.

On the other hand, Apple continues to show that it's not very good when it comes to working with channel partners, according to a September CRN Intelligence survey of 175 Apple solution providers.

In the survey, 55 percent of the Apple partners said they have found themselves competing with Apple's direct sales force in the past year. Some 14 percent rated Apple enterprise channel conflict as high, while 33 percent rated it as medium, and 46 percent rated it as low.

Apple partners are hopeful the vendor's enterprise partnership with Cisco Systems will help infuse some channel love. But partners who've been waiting for this for years say they'll believe it when they see it.

8. Nutanix

Nutanix didn't take kindly to it when Chuck Hollis, the longtime EMC and VMware storage executive who left in August, raised questions about Nutanix's technology and support in a blog post in March. Dheeraj Pandey, president and CEO of Nutanix, responded by calling Hollis' assertions "truly inane."

This wasn't just a typical vendor spat. Nutanix, with more than $312 million in funding, considers itself a bona fide challenger to VMware's longstanding dominance of the data center. And Pandey's response to Hollis' claims show that the scrappy startup isn't going to be pushed around without a fight.

Nutanix followed this up by introducing its own KVM-based server virtualization hypervisor and management software, along with technology that automatically migrates VMware-based workloads to KVM and Microsoft Hyper-V. This gives customers a clear path to move off of VMware if they so choose, and it caught the industry's attention because aside from Microsoft, few vendors have had the ability -- or gumption -- to go after the strongest part of VMware's business.

7. AT&T

AT&T has helped the U.S. National Security Agency spy on Internet traffic "on a vast scale," The New York Times reported in August. AT&T didn't just help out on a couple of occasions, either: According to the report, the carrier's relationship with the NSA was "highly collaborative" and characterized by "an extreme willingness to help."

AT&T has given the NSA billions of emails and permitted the wiretapping of Internet communications transmitted over its network between 2003 and 2013, according to the report. AT&T partners told CRN at the time that they didn't consider this a major problem, though some did say they expect their customers will be asking more questions about the security of the carrier's services.

6. CSC

It's been kind of a busy year for CSC, which officially split its commercial and public sector businesses in November, but has also been dealing with a number of other issues.

In April, the co-founder of ServiceMesh, the cloud management vendor CSC acquired in 2013, stepped down during a bribery scandal. Then in June, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged CSC and former executives with accounting fraud in a four-year old case, and slapped them with a $190 million fine.

CSC CEO Mike Lawrie also acknowledged that he should have done a better job transitioning the company to the era of cloud computing. "I missed some of the dynamics associated with the acceleration to cloud," Lawrie said during a CSC earnings call. "It is accelerating and had a bigger impact than what I thought it was going to have in 2015."

Now, CSC is hoping the turmoil is over. It has merged its public sector business with SRA to create CSRA, the world's largest pure-play U.S. government security provider. CSC -- ranked No. 5 on CRN's 2015 Solution Provider 500 list before its November split with CSRA -- made a $720 million bid to acquire British outsourcing company Xchanging in early December, beating out two other suitors.

5. Hewlett-Packard

Hewlett-Packard, which also split itself into two companies this year, has sent mixed signals about its public cloud strategy. After The New York Times reported in April that HP would be "ceding" the public cloud market to Amazon Web Services, Google and Microsoft, HP said this didn't mean it was exiting the space entirely.

"We run one of the largest OpenStack technology-based public cloud out there. This has to do with not competing head to head with the big public cloud players," HP said in a statement at the time.

But in a stunning reversal in October, HP said it would shut down its Helion public cloud service at the end of January in order to focus more resources on its managed and virtual private cloud offerings.

Meanwhile, HP also irked some of its channel partners by signing on with Microsoft as a Surface reseller in September. But Hewlett-Packard Vice President Mike Nash later told CRN that partners shouldn't interpret the move as a slap in the face for the channel.

4. Citrix Systems

Citrix came into the year well aware that it needed to make major changes to its business, as U.S. consulting giant Deloitte LLP recommended that it lay off employees and divest non-core businesses, sources familiar with the matter told CRN in June. Activist investor Elliott Management also took a stake in Citrix and began pushing for big changes.

There was intense debate within Citrix's board over how these changes should be handled, or whether they should be implemented at all, according to the sources. In July, Citrix announced that CEO Mark Templeton would be leaving and began looking for a new CEO.

Citrix this year has had two waves of layoffs, and in November, the company acknowledged it would spin off its GoTo line of SaaS apps as a separate, publicly traded company.

Citrix has a solid track record and respected technology, and now that the company has begun the hard work of re-organization, its channel partners are hoping that next year will be a less eventful one.

3. VMware

VMware used to be a fairly drama-free vendor, but that wasn't the case this year. First, the U.S. Department of Defense canceled VMware's proposed five-year, $1.6 billion enterprise licensing agreement in March after rivals Amazon Web Services, Nutanix and Citrix protested it.

Then in June, VMware and reseller partner Carahsoft agreed to pay $75.5 million to settle a civil lawsuit that alleged overcharging of the federal government. VMware and Carahsoft were alleged to have given private sector customers better discounts and also to have enticed government customers to buy more software than they actually needed.

VMware is also getting industry scrutiny over an enterprise licensing agreement it did for the U.S. Army in 2013, which has led to bigger-than-expected costs for some Army commands.

Since October, VMware has been the centerpiece of Dell's $67.1 billion bid to acquire EMC. VMware was supposed to be part of a cloud joint venture with EMC called Virtustream, but pulled out in early December. The last two remaining independent board members also left at the time.

2. Microsoft

You just knew Microsoft would be on this list, because Microsoft is so huge that one part or another is always going to be involved in some sort of industry kerfuffle.

Microsoft earned accolades for letting early adopters test out the Windows 10 Insider Preview and offer feedback, but now some partners and customers are questioning whether the software giant is now listening as intently as it was during the pre-launch period.

Some Microsoft customers and partners got their backs up when the software giant started downloading Windows 10 files to PCs running Windows 7 and Windows 8/8.1, even for customers that have not signed up for its free Windows 10 upgrade offer.

Meanwhile, Microsoft also had a surprise up its sleeve when it unveiled Surface Book, a full-blown laptop computer that joins the Surface table in the software giant's hardware portfolio. HP and Dell said they welcomed the competition Microsoft would bring to the space, but they -- and other PC makers -- now going to be under pressure to raise their own games.

1. EMC

EMC has faced pressure from investors that want it to spin off VMware and break up its federation of subsidiaries, but CEO Joe Tucci has steadfastly insisted -- over and over and over -- that he prefers to keep the conglomeration of companies together.

EMC even vowed to make some acquisitions this year, and it pulled off a big one in May by acquiring cloud service provider Virtustream for $1.2 billion. Some industry watchers were perplexed by the deal because the EMC Federation already had VMware's vCloud Air offering.

Then EMC and VMware announced they'd be combining their respective assets into a new cloud company called Virtustream, which seemed to clarify the strategy, at least a bit. But in early December VMware backed out of the joint venture, and EMC is once again touting Virtustream.

Meanwhile, VMware shares have lost nearly a third of their value since the Dell-EMC deal was announced, and CEO Tucci has tried to calm spooked investors. Now, many partners are wondering if the VMware market volatility could affect Dell's historic bid to acquire EMC.