Image by Port of San Diego via FlickrOracle's Lost Revolution WIRED magazine January 2010 (18.01) issue By Daniel Roth
He had lived in Gates’ shadow since March 1986, when Oracle, Ellison’s database- software company, had gone public just a day before Microsoft. Gates got attention for everything he did, but barely anyone knew Oracle. Windows 95 was the last straw. “There was peace in the Middle East and war in Bosnia the same week,” he later groused. “And all that the major networks seemed to cover was people in parking lots waiting up all night to get their first copy of Windows 95.” His grudge wasn’t just about ego; Microsoft had already begun nosing around the database- software industry, and its mounting war chest meant that it could easily fund a push into Oracle’s territory. ......... Immediately after the Windows 95 launch, Ellison called one of his lieutenants, Farzad Dibachi, to his mansion in Atherton, California. ..... They imagined a simple machine that would eschew software installed on a hard drive in favor of accessing applications online. ...... It was a powerful idea, one that would enchant companies and analysts throughout the IT industry. But it would ultimately fail. In 1999, after spending four years and losing nearly $175 million, Oracle pulled the plug, changing the name of its network computer spinoff to Liberate Technologies and focusing its business on set-top box software for interactive television. (Ellison personally funded another network computer startup that didn’t fare any better.) ........ The network computer failed as a product and as a business, but it seeded an idea — and a group of technologists — that would go on to remake the computing world. ....... “A PC is a ridiculous device,” he said, launching an attack on Microsoft’s core business. He ran down a list of the desktop’s deficiencies: It was hard to learn to operate, expensive, overpowered, and — thanks to the arrival of the World Wide Web — increasingly irrelevant. That’s why he was ushering in the post-PC era with the network computer, or NC, which Oracle would help build within a year. The simple $500 box would be a stripped-down unit that served one purpose: to connect to the Internet. For the NC, the Web wouldn’t be a mere feature but a utility, as fundamental as water and electricity. “What the world really wants,” Ellison told the crowd, “is to plug into a wall to get electronic power, and plug in to get data.” ........ Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen declared the NC “a pretty major new business opportunity,” predicting that hundreds of millions of the machines would be in homes and offices within 20 years. ....... Perhaps nobody was as excited as Eric Schmidt, CTO of Sun Microsystems. Within months, Sun built an NC prototype and began developing a lean operating system to run on it. Speaking to U.S. News & World Report, Schmidt couldn’t stop raving about the idea’s potential. ...... The company’s salespeople fielded more questions about the NC than about the databases that constituted the bulk of Oracle’s business. ........“The NC story just exploded beyond anything I imagined,” Ellison said later. “It took on a life of its own.” ........ Looking to stem the momentum of Windows, Ellison promised to release low-cost machines within a year. That meant rushing out computers before they were fully developed. ........ an underpowered ARM processor that produced blocky graphics and strained to render a Web page in less than four seconds ........ “We thought we had a full product,” he says. “But when we took it to market, we realized it was an alpha.” ....... with wide-scale broadband penetration still many years away, Internet apps didn’t stand a chance against local software. ...... By 1999, the NC was basically dead. ....... Gates delivered his own, gloating coda in late 1998, speaking at the same Paris IT conference where Ellison had first announced the NC. “The network computer is pretty discredited,” Gates told the crowd. ....... almost immediately after the NC was announced, PC prices began to plummet, partially in response to Ellison’s threat. From the 1970s to the early ’90s, the cost of desktop PCs — adjusted for performance — dropped an average of 15 percent a year. Between 1995 and 2000 — the NC era — PC prices fell at an annual rate of 28 percent. By the late ’90s, consumers could get a full desktop computer for less than $800. For just a few hundred dollars more, the PC could do everything the NC could, and much more. This was bad news for the NC, but it was also bad news for Microsoft’s main allies, the PC makers, who had to slash their margins to compete with the phantom product...... After initially downplaying the threat and importance of the Internet, Gates became obsessed. Rather than attacking Oracle, he went after Netscape in what became an all-consuming fight that nearly drove Microsoft to a government-imposed breakup. Oracle may have spent a ton of money on its NC gamble, but its now $112 billion database business never faced a serious threat from Redmond. ....... All the excitement about the NC had also raised Oracle’s profile. Ellison was no longer an also-ran; he was lauded as a seer and started getting the same kind of press adulation as Gates. In April 1995, Charlie Rose had Ellison on to talk about the Internet for just a few minutes — sandwiched between discussions of the O. J. Simpson trial and Pope John Paul II. By 1996, Rose had Ellison on as a featured guest. ......... He summed up the entire project in a typically blusterous quote: “As for the network computer, I don’t care about it at all.” ....... In 1997, Eric Schmidt was lured away from Sun to take over ailing enterprise-software company Novell; four years later, he was brought on as CEO of Google. Yet he could never let go of the NC concept. In 2005, he noticed the emergence of Ajax, a technology that enabled Web-based applications to run as smoothly as their shrink-wrapped, locally installed counterparts. It enabled programmers to develop and deploy software in ways that Sun had only dreamed about when creating Java. Almost instantly, Google engineers began building software — most notably Google Docs and Spreadsheets, direct competitors to Microsoft’s flagship Office suite. ........Last summer, Google announced an even more ambitious project: a lightweight operating system engineered to power inexpensive portable computers that lack hard drives. Called Chrome OS, the software is designed to be barely noticeable. Its sole function is to connect the device to the Web. Sound familiar? “I’ve been giving the same speech for 15 years,” Schmidt says. “But ultimately, the reason the NC didn’t work was that the technology wasn’t mature enough.” Now, he says, that’s no longer true. “Chrome is the consequence of the network computer vision.” ........ while the netbook may be the direct descendent of the NC, its cousin, the smartphone, is seen by most alumni of the NC movement as the more powerful force. ....... We tend to think of technology as a steady march, a progression of increasingly better mousetraps that succeed based on their merits. But in the end, evolution may provide a better model for how technological battles are won. One mutation does not, by itself, define progress. Instead, it creates another potential path for development, sparking additional changes and improvements until one finally breaks through and establishes a new organism. .....Larry Ellison
I first thought of the IC - Internet Computer - concept around 2000. It was called having grown up in the poorest country outside of Africa. There was that Third World pull. Internet access needed to be cheaper. I have never been a great user of the Microsoft Office products. I don't remember any memorable PowerPoint presentation I ever gave: I doubt I have given more than five total, ever. Big letters are for dumb people. If the idea is to get ideas across, a webpage does a better job, I think. Webpages back then, now blog posts. I have never had much use for Excel. I was forced to use Word, but even there I would rapidly convert my papers into webpages online. Printing them out took less space, and they looked more beautiful. I wanted to do my word processing in HTML. And I did.
But it was not the office concept, it was the library concept, the communication concept. Hotmail was my idea of email. Things needed to be online. This was before the nuclear winter. I called the device IC, Internet Computer. It was more than a year before I came across the Larry Ellison terminology Network Computer. Some others had talked of dumb terminals. That is not what I had in mind. Dumb terminals still ran the Office programs, only they were hosted on one big computer in a big room somewhere on campus. I wanted to bypass that and go straight to the internet.
I was throwing around my idea online in different forums. In one forum of a leading tech online magazine, I met a VP of one of the top ten VC firms in the country. He happened to be Indian. I pitched him. We moved to email. He asked me if I had a prototype. No, I did not.
The nuclear winter was time off. I missed the Clinton era. I saw a relationship between the Clinton term limit and the onset of the nuclear winter. A third term for Clinton would have prevented the nuclear winter.
Then I moved to NYC summer of 2005 to launch my IC company. Too bad I got sucked into working full time for Nepal's democracy movement. But some time early I met someone who had met Bill Gates before Bill Gates became Bill Gates. Gates showed up for a conference in Denver. This dude went to pick him up at the airport. He had to pay the cabbie because the future billionaire was not carrying any cash. This dude was now running an incubator somewhere upstate. He asked me if I would be willing to move to where his incubator was. I said yes. But we did not follow up. I really have no desire to step outside the city boundaries. And, besides, I was soon enough working full time trying to put out the fire in Nepal. Nobel Peace Prize quality work, but time spent away from the IC startup.
That Nepal phase ended. Obama showed up. That was another diversion, but it was finally therapy after 500 years of world history, and a high school run by white people, and a college run by white people. But I did start work on the side on the startup. Round one money was raised. A small team was assembled. Some techies in India got into orbit. And then in February 2009, most investors walked away. The sky was falling. "We still believe in you, we still believe in the vision, but we have to go." This shit seems to happen about once every 10 years. Two gifts from Bush: the nuclear winter, and the Great Recession. Who says voting does not matter?
The vision of getting everyone onto broadband is fundamental. It is the size of India's struggle for independence, and voting rights for black Americans. I have been talking about a barebones operating system for a few years now. I was talking about something like the Chrome OS a few years before Google started talking about it.
Chrome Operating System
The IC vision has had three components: hardware, software, connectivity. I have long said Google is the leading IC software company. Chrome OS is an important addition. A free OS is a good OS. I am excited. A $300 Chrome OS Netbook is still not cheap enough, but it is a pretty good starting price. The bottleneck was and is connectivity. There is the part about laying down the infrastructure. And that part is also easy. You just go ahead and auction off the spectrum.
India Broadband Spectrum Bids
Kayak, Paul English, Africa, Free Wireless Internet
The real challenge is at the business model level. And there I see as much room for work as ever. The rise of the mobile phone does not take away from that huge need. The IC vision rings as true for me as it did in 2000, only now it feels much more real.
Google's Advertising Business
But I am set to do the job thing for a year or two. I am about a year away from a green card. I am going to need that piece of paper. It is frustrating. I left Nepal in 1996. Back then you had to wait in long lines in Nepal to get a phone. Years. That was frustrating. The immigration regime in America feels that frustrating and that anti-entrepreneurship.
Going to work for Google New York for a year or two might be a great idea. Sam Walton launched Walmart when he was 42. He did fine. He did better than Bill Gates, measured in dollar terms.
Entry Level Jobs
Google New York
Has Google Been Able To Scale Well?
Me @ BBC
Who Is Chetan Bhagat? 2010 Time 100