Better off fired


7 min read
CNET News.com Newsmakers
December 19, 1996, Jean-Louis Gass?e
Better off fired
By Margie Wylie
Staff Writer, CNET NEWS.COM

Jean-Louis Gass?e recalls with fondness the day John Sculley fired him from Apple six years ago.

"He asked me what I thought of him, and I told him," Gass?e says. It wasn't the first time the flamboyant Frenchman's mouth landed him in hot water, but this time, it turned out to be the luckiest day of his life. In fact, Gass?e claims he has since thanked Apple's former leader for the favor, and says he hasn't slept better in his life.

It seems Gass?e will continue to sleep well. After months of negotiations to buy the company, Apple late last week passed over Gass?e's Be for rival Next, started by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Gass?e says Be can live with or without Apple, but some say Be needs Apple's clout in order to crack the OS market. Gass?e seemed unconcerned last month when he struck a bundling deal with Mac clone-maker Power Computing, but how he's sleeping today is unknown. He left for a Parisian Christmas as Apple and Next made the announcement.

Gass?e founded Apple France and was brought to the United States to head Apple's R&D under Steve Jobs. Surviving Job's ouster for a comfortable margin of years, Gass?e no doubt considered Apple his corporate home, so his ouster by then CEO John Sculley must have been gut wrenching. Neither was it easy starting Be, a company aimed at producing yet another operating system in a market that has shown itself disinterested in upstarts.

In fact, the 40-person company has struggled for survival. At one point Gass?e even mortgaged his house to make payroll. But even in the worst of times at Be, he says he's found contentment: "We have had hard times in the past and I'm sure we'll have hard times in the future. But even...when I was looking into the whites of the repoman's eyes, when we were really running out of money,...I slept a lot better than I did when I was working for Apple."

Be is more like the early-day Apple that Jobs recruited him into than the lumbering giant Gass?e saw Apple become. Be's "corporate lunchroom" is made up of shabby couches purchased for $10 each at Repo-Depo, brags the Be chief. Gass?e's informal office is filled with toys and promotional giveaways. The president and CEO dresses in jeans and a T-shirt and sits casually with one foot tucked underneath him. The only reminder that Be isn't more than a bunch of geeks having a ball is the photocopy of a handwritten $1.4 million check from venture-capital firm Sequoia thumbtacked to the office wall.

The check was the first of the $14 million from venture capital firm Sequoia that saved Gass?e's house and his hide.

NEWS.COM chatted with a relaxed--but somewhat more circumspect Gass?e than the one who was fired from Apple--in Be's Menlo Park, California, offices.

Let's pretend for a moment that all the rumors about Apple acquiring Be are true. What can Be do for Apple that it can't do for itself?
Gassee: I would not prejudge that we can do anything for Apple that it cannot do for itself. Hypothetically--you've read the computer magazines--some people think that we could help with a more modern operating-system capability. I don't know if that's the case. Right now our plan is to focus on delivering the next revision of our software this year. If we can enter a closer relationship with Apple and that's good for shareholders of both companies fine, if not fine.

NEXT: All about Be

Jean-Louis Gass?e

Age: 52

Claim to fame: Flamboyant exec through Apple's heydey

Last book read: "The Constitution of Liberty," by Friedrich August Von Hayek

Models: Seymore Cray, Eric Benhamou, Efi Arazi, Steve Jobs, Bill Hewlett, Dave Packard

Literary pursuits: Writes a weekly column for Parisian daily "La Lib?ration"

CNET News.com Newsmakers
December 19, 1996, Jean-Louis Gass?e
All about Be

Where does Be fit?
One investor called us "the poor man's Silicon Graphics." He was trying to tease me, but I said, "Call me every morning at 8 a.m. to remind me of that station in life, because I love it." You know that Silicon Graphics has had a lot of problems with the low-end but it has done exceedingly well at the high-end.

[Or] maybe we could be the Amiga of the late 90's. People say, "You are crazy! Why would you want to be the Amiga? It's dead." No, no, no. Commodore is dead and it took the Amiga down with it. It was a very successful computer. It sold 4.5 million machines to a very loyal following. I wouldn't mind such a market for a 40-person company. We can be very successful in building and developing software and hardware for people interested in developing content, not consuming content. On the consuming side, we have no role to play.

It's tempting to compare Be to Next, which Steve Jobs started after he left Apple in order to build the ultimate high-end machine. What makes Be different?
There are a few differences, minor or major, you decide. We don't cost $10,000. We don't sell $15,000 development system [computers]. Instead, we discount our hardware to developers. It is an honor when a developer commits to our system, not vice versa. We have a floppy; we don't use a funky magneto-optical drive. [Next machines shipped without floppy drives.] Risk on the system software is enough, all the rest is industry standard, PC-clone, organ-bank parts. We're not going to get a medal for designing a new keyboard or a new hard disk or a new bus.

Also our stuff is faster. If you remember, in order to get the Next machine out fast, they took off-the-shelf components such as display PostScript, which is very nice, and a [Unix] kernel from Carnegie Melon University, called Mach, and bolted them together. That allowed for fast development, but the performance was slow. As one of my engineers who has been a hacker said, "the geeks will forgive a lot, but not a slow machine."

Doesn't Be need this Apple deal? You've been through two rounds of private and venture capital and your investors must be anxious to see some return.
The investors invested and we invested on the basis that Be had a valid business plan as an independent company. If there is a deal that creates leverage for both investors--by enabling Apple shareholders to have something that will advance the interests the company--fine; if it advances the interests of our shareholders--fine. But our business is not predicated on any such deal. Life doesn't work that way.

Then what about taking Be public?
I don't know yet. You know, I'm a French farmer. I've been abducted by aliens and dropped in the middle of California, so what do I know about all this stuff? [Laughs] My view of IPOs is this: My window overlooks the parking lot. When I see investment bankers fighting for parking spots, I'll know it's time to do an IPO. It's easy, do a good job and the environment will take care of the rest.

NEXT: Corporate detox

CNET News.com Newsmakers
December 19, 1996, Jean-Louis Gass?e
Corporate detox

What do you think went wrong with Apple in the last few years?
I signed my contract with Apple in December 1980. The day after people in the industry in France were telling me that I was crazy, because Apple was going to go bankrupt. This was late 1980, so now we are in 1996. Apple has a very loyal following, they have new management that is pretty well aware of what they have to do and pretty focused on accomplishing that. And so, I'm optimistic about Apple's future.

Apple has made aggressive changes in pricing and products and the new management is very new, so let's see what they'll do. Give them a break. I've been inside and I know how it felt when people were throwing stones, and I have a lot of empathy for them.

It's a lot easier being on the outside [of Apple].
It sure is. I've been six years in detox from being a "corporocrat," so I'm learning my new job of entrepreneur. I've been bitten by the entrepreneur bug, I love it. We have had hard times in the past and I'm sure we'll have hard times in the future. But even in the hardest of times, when I was looking into the whites of the repoman's eyes, when we were really running out of money, when I was mortgaging my house in order to make payroll, I slept a lot better than I did when I was working for Apple. In February of 1995, I was meeting with Mike Spindler [then president of Apple], because we were really running out of money. I strapped the kneepads on, got my tin cup, and met with Mike Spindler, because I knew that Copland was in trouble. I said, "Why don't you buy insurance. We'll give you equity in the company. You help us, we'll help you." Nothing came out of that meeting, but Mike was complaining, I remember, that he was not sleeping well. Then it hit me, that even in those difficult times, I was sleeping better than he did. So, I like this. It's fun.

Perhaps because you are doing it for yourself?
I have shareholders. My employees, my investors are all shareholders. The thing that is different is that I know all my shareholders. So I work for them, but it's personal. It's not an anonymous relationship. I'm not condemning the more anonymous relationship of a large corporation. But the personal relationship to shareholders is easier for me.

Do you ever feel like an outsider in American culture?
My nationality has never been an issue here. I've never seen the color of my passport in your eyes. In the culture, my accent, maybe, my choice of metaphors, perhaps, but it's a country of immigrants. It's okay for a U.S. company to have a Frenchman running their R&D. It's okay for Apple or Chrysler and others. In France you'd never have a French company hire an American to be the head of their R&D. I love it here. It's home.