REDWOOD SHORES, California--Mark McGwire may be the biggest story of late, but when it comes to high tech the perennial topic is Bill Gates and the sway he holds over the industry.
Sure enough, at a media event hosted today by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, discussion shifted from the database maker's latest offering, Oracle 8i, and the company's vision of Internet computing to Microsoft's alleged ability to call the shots.
Ellison described two separate incidents where Gates apparently intervened to stymie developmental projects seen as threatening the Redmond, Washington, software maker. His charges, which generally support government claims that Microsoft illegally stifles competition, came on the same day that Microsoft subpoenaed its chief competitors--including Oracle--seeking details meant to ward off allegations in its ongoing antitrust case.
According to the Oracle CEO, Robert Palmer, the former chief of Digital Equipment, suddenly dropped plans to build a network computer (NC) last year because of apparent pressure from Gates.
Ellison acknowledged that Palmer did not explicitly mention Gates or Microsoft as the reason for Digital's dropping its NC plans, but said other people at Digital did blame Microsoft for aborting the effort. Digital had been working with Oracle under an agreement by which the PC maker would have manufactured some 500,000 NCs and Oracle would have provided the software.
According to unnamed Digital executives quoted by the New York Times, Microsoft specifically threatened to halt development of its Windows NT operating system for Digital's Alpha processor unless the NC project code-named "Shark" was canceled.
Digital has since been acquired by Compaq, and Palmer has left the company. Microsoft could not immediately be reached for comment.
"Bill Gates is the pope of the personal computer industry--he decides who's going to build a PC," said Ellison, his longtime foe.
Ellison also said that while chipmaking giant Intel may be one axis of the "Wintel" duopoly, the company was at odds with its supposed partner in pushing for a single, unified version of Unix, an effort that never bore fruit.
According to the Oracle chief, Intel's Andy Grove was the driving force behind industry efforts to amalgamate Unix operating system variants into a single version that would be adopted by the likes of IBM, Sun, AT&T, and others. Grove was involved in these efforts as recently as two years ago, Ellison said.
"Andy was the bandleader [to unite Unix] and I was maybe the third violinist," Ellison observed.
Apparently the former Intel CEO was motivated by his desire to avoid relying on Microsoft, to be able to conduct business independent of Redmond's influence. As recent reports of the Microsoft-DOJ case reveal, internal Intel memos allege that Microsoft pressured Intel to drop certain Internet-related projects that conflicted with the software giant's own agenda.
But the plan failed because the major players like IBM and Sun did not want to give up the competitive advantage of being able to sell their own flavor of Unix, he said. In Ellison's view, a unified Unix never came about because it was not a matter of "life and death" for the key players.
Interestingly, Ellison acknowledged that the industry's present status quo accords with its history: There has always been a leader, and that leader has always pushed its proprietary technology. Other industry players, for their part, have always rallied around alternative and open standards to thwart the leader.
"IBM was that way?but it wasn't as ruthless despite its monopoly position. Microsoft is different," he said, adding that the software maker has used illegal tactics to gets its way.
"I don't know if the government is going to breakup Microsoft's monopoly, but the Internet is going to breakup Microsoft's monopoly position," Ellison said, predicting that open Internet standards will prevail over Microsoft's way of doing business.
Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.