REDWOOD SHORES, California--On the eve of Apple's annual shareholder meeting, board member Larry Ellison said the personal computer pioneer is poised to become no less than "the great provider of digital appliances."
"I've seen some of the new products coming downstream and you want them like a teenage boy wants a cool-looking fast car," Ellison, who is chief executive of Oracle, said during a wide-ranging interview this afternoon at the database giant's headquarters.
"You'll see more affordable machines for students, you'll see us [Apple] continue to work on price, work on portability, work on great new display technology," he said.
During the interview, Ellison also said:
• It "certainly makes sense" for America Online to have low-cost appliances like the ones being developed by Oracle's Network Computer Incorporated to access the Net. NCI's involvement with AOL has been reported. Ellison made it a point that Jim Barksdale, until last week Netscape's chief executive officer and now a member of the AOL board of directors, also sits on the board of NCI, adding to a strong relationship.
• In the future, Microsoft's most popular operating system should be Windows CE, not Windows NT. The latter is too complicated, bulky, and "dare I say, ridiculous" on the desktop, while CE is cheaper and can be used widely on the low-cost machines that he thinks will proliferate.
• Oracle is close to a deal with NEC to sell its Oracle 8i appliance, code-named Raw Iron. The company struck previous agreements with Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Siemens. Ellison said Oracle is continuing to negotiate with Compaq on a Raw Iron deal and is optimistic that it will be completed. Raw Iron is an all-in-one product that features an operating system, database, and Java Web server.
• Oracle plans a public offering of NCI and its Business Online outsourcing service. Ellison said Oracle has been interviewing investment bankers to take NCI public and expected an offering "very soon." He indicated that the Business Online IPO might come later but still by year-end. Business Online allows customers to rent Oracle applications through the Web.
As for Apple's product strategy, Ellison said, "Right now I use an NEC flat panel, and I see what's coming from Apple," and it is impressive. He added that Apple could be a provider of "the world's coolest TV-computer combination you have in your room."
"Just as televisions are becoming computers, computers are starting to become televisions with different displays. Apple has a great chance of being the best name in digital appliances," like Sony in the analog electronics business, he said.
When pressed if any product announcements were imminent, Ellison replied: "I can't comment. We have a board meeting tomorrow, and Steve will just kill me. Steve's my best friend. He gets so depressed [at pre-announcements]."
In his interview today, Ellison would not confirm that Jobs had any plans to drop the word interim from his chief executive title. He called Jobs the "best iCEO in history" and credited him with engineering the turnaround. "I think he's going to keep working there as long as he's helping the company and enjoying himself, and that's the mode he's in," he said.
News.com's Jim Davis contributed to this report.