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Zero degrees of Bill Gates

News events this week lead me to believe someone somewhere has got to be devising a version a game for the computer industry called "Zero Degrees of Bill Gates."

You've probably heard of or played the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game--the premise of which is that there is some connection between the actor and everyone who has been in the movies in the last 15 years.

News events this week led me to believe that someone somewhere has got to be devising a version of this game for the computer industry. This one, of course, would be called "Zero Degrees of Bill Gates."

On Wednesday, two companies made major announcements about the strategic direction of their business. Borland International, which made its name selling programming tools, is basically reinventing itself. (See related story) In fact, Borland as a company is no more: It will from now on be known as "Inprise."

NetChannel, on the other hand, decided to shutter its fledgling Internet-via-TV service and is "revising" its business plans. (See related story)

On the surface, the two companies couldn't be further apart in their history or business mission. One would assume that there is no connection between Borland and NetChannel, save the fact that they both made public their new fates on the same day.

But as is increasingly the case in the industry, when there is news (good or bad), Microsoft is somehow connected to it. In effect, it's the straw that stirs the drink.

And so it goes with Borland and NetChannel. Both were forced to make their respective decisions because of Microsoft. Inprise, née Borland, now sees its future not in providing tools but in the much more profitable area of systems integration and software services. CEO Delbert Yocam said the name change was prompted by the company's acquisition of Visigenic Software in February and its desire to appeal to corporate buyers.

With the new name and new strategy, it seems Inprise executives want to bury the ghost of the past. They want to keep the new company and its products as far away from Microsoft's turf as possible. They've been through the era of Philippe Kahn, the Borland founder who proclaimed himself "the Barbarian" and set out to slay Bill Gates and Microsoft. To accomplish this, Kahn added to his arsenal the QuattroPro spreadsheet and dBASE database, among other products. Well, we all know the Barbarian didn't quite get to Gates.

NetChannel founders, one presumes, were not as brazen. For them, it was a matter of timing. They just happened to get connected to Microsoft when Gates decided to acquire WebTV last year.

"There were a couple of factors that played into this decision," a NetChannel executive told CNET's NEWS.COM. "One was the service did not reach the projected critical mass that we had anticipated, and so it does not make it economically feasible to go forward with this generation of service. Second was a resource issue. We needed to focus our resources on something that better delivers the enhanced television experience that we've always talked about," he added.

His point about not reaching a critical mass and resources might sound reasonable. After all, NetChannel had signed up only 10,000 customers. But what he neglected to mention was that lack of reach and resources are relative terms. NetChannel's one and only competitor, WebTV, has garnered 300,000 users, and thanks to Microsoft, limited resources will not be an issue.

When Philippe Kahn was winding down his tenure at Borland, he too had to tackle these same two issues: reaching critical mass and resources. So in this, both Borland and NetChannel had a common thread--a thread connected to Gates and company.

Coincidentally, Microsoft also was in the news Wednesday. There were several reports about the Justice Department and up to a dozen states joining forces considering new antitrust actions against the software giant. But while regulators are busy figuring out what to do about Windows 98 and the bundling of the Internet Explorer browser and such, the marketplace continues to be affected by Microsoft's ongoing businesses and ventures.

No matter who or where you are in the PC industry, you're virtually zero degrees from Bill Gates.

Jai Singh is the editor of NEWS.COM.