White whales and dangerous obsessions

When the subject happens to be Bill Gates and Microsoft, CNET News.com's Charles Cooper writes, some otherwise sane technology executives engage in some insane pursuits.

Charles Cooper
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.
4 min read
You'd think he's just your garden-variety tech mogul, but there's a certain something about Bill Gates that really drives some of his chief rivals to distraction.

In the past decade and a half, I've watched some of the best brains in the computer industry try to wipe that goofy smile off his face. It's been great entertainment for the folks in the peanut gallery. But sometimes we've had to scratch our heads when--shades of Captain Ahab's pursuit of Moby Dick--Microsoft's rivals have pursued some recklessly bad courses of action.

I'm still trying to put my finger on a full explanation.

Sure, there's the obvious nastiness that results from repeated business friction, especially when the same guy seems always to walk away winning most of the marbles. Now there's some consolation in that the losers can cry foul because the bane of their existence has been judged a law-breaking monopolist by a court of law.

But that still fails to explain decisions made by some of the high-tech bigwigs--and there have been some doozies.

For starters, consider the slow-motion demise of Novell. The company has been heading south since the early 1990s. That's when former CEO Ray Noorda let his fateful obsession with bringing down Bill Gates get the better of his good sense.

Novell was quite successful for much of Noorda's stewardship. The company once enjoyed fat margins and booming sales, and offered far better networking technology than anything developed by Microsoft. But as Redmond methodically improved its network operating system technology, Noorda tinkered with his company's strategic vision. He decided one fateful day that Novell needed to become more Microsoft-like. Just why remains a mystery.

The plan was to bolt on additional software armor that would let Novell offer software programs from the client level up to the NOS. Noorda first tried to merge his company with Lotus but the deal went sour. He persisted and announced the subsequent acquisitions of WordPerfect and Borland's database line. The rhetoric at the time was impressive: Novell would turn into a mirror version of Microsoft, would serve up all these applications directly on a corporate network, and so on.

It was a disaster. Noorda failed to match Gates' brilliance or ruthlessness, and the attendant software and personnel integration issues led to such a boondoggle that it triggered a death spiral that neither Bob Frankenberg nor Eric Schmidt--who succeeded Noorda as CEO--could reverse. The sorry postscript is that Novell's fate now barely hangs in the balance.

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison hasn't done anything quite that daffy, though various and sundry dalliances never did make much sense.

Ellison pushed the network computer in 1997, arguing that it was a superior design to the Wintel PC. The idea was to put most of the computing muscle and complexity in the network. All you needed was a stripped-down terminal to access programs and resources. Oh, and best of all, no Microsoft operating system on either the client or the back end.

That idea misfired, helped along by the subsequent collapse in PC prices, which, by 1998, made the network computer a dead issue. But Ellison persisted. He co-founded the New Internet Computer Co. in January 2000, when there was lots of buzz about the potential for Microsoft-free devices selling for a few hundred dollars. And he let a TV personality run it.

By the time the first product was ready for delivery, the price topped $300--with monitor. But by then, sub-$500 PCs had become commonplace. "The market hasn't heated up to the millions of units like everybody thought," NIC Co. CEO Gina Smith told CNET News.com earlier this summer, offering perhaps the understatement of the year.

Ellison's Microsoft-bashing brother, Sun CEO Scott McNealy, also has pursued the white whale of Redmond for quite a spell. Remember WABI, the Windows Application Binary Interface? That was a way of letting Windows applications run on Unix computers, translating the application's instructions to Unix services without needing to run the Windows system in emulation.

McNealy would pitch audiences on how this was a superior way to hijack Windows and supplant it as an industry-controlled standard. As Scottso is wont to say, this was a case of big hat, no cattle. WABI went nowhere.

Things might have turned out differently had Sun come up with an office package that offered full compatibility--an essential customer requirement. But it was not to be. Fast-forward and you'll hear that some of the arguments about the superiority of Java over Windows sound a lot like Sun's position papers on WABI, the clincher being that it's an industry standard not controlled by You Know Who.

Both McNealy and Ellison have more on the ball than Noorda did in his prime, so it's doubtful that either exec would ever lead his company into an expensive folly because of contempt for Microsoft and Gates. Yet isn't it interesting how the fear and loathing of one man and his company can lead some of the savviest people in an industry filled with brilliant people to pursue some awfully dumb ventures.

Yet another reason why covering the tech field remains a reporter's delight.