Glaser: Bull in a china shop

profile When his net worth reached a stunning $5 billion in early 2000, RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser could savor the thought that he had finally proved something to Bill Gates.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
3 min read
profile When his net worth reached a stunning $5 billion in early 2000, RealNetworks CEO Rob Glaser could savor the thought that he had finally proved something to Bill Gates.

Described by associates as brilliant and hypercompetitive, Glaser was an ambitious young executive who worked his way up through the ranks to become vice president of the multimedia systems group at Microsoft. In 1993, Glaser, a Yale graduate, left Microsoft to start what was originally called Progressive Networks.

For a while, it looked like a brilliant move. As a supplier of multimedia software, RealNetworks saw its fortunes soar during the dot-com era's heyday.

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But when the bubble burst, so did Glaser's ambitions of outdoing his ex-boss. RealNetworks has since struggled to recapture its stride and was forced to reinvent itself as an Internet cable TV station--in no small part because of competition from Microsoft in the content-streaming business.

"I think everybody who knows Rob from Microsoft would agree that he's trying to prove something to Bill," said one former Microsoft colleague, who asked not be named. "A big part of Rob when he got started was to prove he could do it by himself."

This executive traced Glaser's motivation to his being passed over to head up Microsoft's multimedia efforts.

"He left Microsoft because Bill chose Nathan (Myrhvold) to run multimedia. That became a big political battle because Bill wanted to unify multimedia under one person and it was Nathan. Rob's been trying to prove subconsciously ever since that Bill chose the wrong person."

Peter Harter, who was Netscape's chief lobbyist during its browser war against Microsoft, agreed that Glaser's business ambitions in some way mixed with the personal.

"He always had this ax to grind and wanted to be as big as Bill," Harter noted. "He's very competitive. But the fact is that he's been successful and been able to manage the company in such a way as to make a lot of people wealthy."

A thickset man possessed of a rapid-fire staccato delivery, Glaser is not shy when it comes to promoting his company to the press. His bull-in-a-china-shop approach to business has won admirers who say it's been vital to RealNetworks' early success.

He also has not been hesitant about sticking it to his ex-boss when the opportunity arises.

Vision Series
Can RealNetworks roll a strike?
This profile from January 2002 finds
CEO Rob Glaser already defending his
company in bunkerlike pitched battles
against the vast empire of Microsoft.

Glaser drew blood when he testified before a Senate subcommittee in the summer of 1998, just months before the opening of the government's antitrust trial, about Microsoft's business practices. He alleged that Microsoft had rigged its media player to disable a similar product from Real. Microsoft dismissed the charge and said it was due to a software bug.

Now Glaser has pushed the charge even further, filing an antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft that alleges Microsoft abused its desktop monopoly to advance its own media player.

"It's deja vu in the sense people have asked whether Real would get Netscaped," said the former colleague. "Now Real's making the same complaints. Will it have the same ending? I don't know. It must show Rob is hurting."

At RealNetworks, his intense management style, one that leaves little doubt about who is in charge, has led to the departure of several executives over the years. Admired for his intellect, he is also feared for a towering temper.

Glaser's personal life is no less combative. An avid bowler, he also is a board member of the Professional Bowlers Association. A self-described "progressive" political activist in college, Glaser has amassed wealth today that allows him to indulge his activism with donations.

Through his Glaser Progress Foundation, which had assets of $29 million at the end of 2002, Glaser has donated to a variety of animal rights organizations, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and the Humane Society.