30 Years Ago: The Rise, Fall and Survival of Ashton-Tate's dBASE

By Darryl Taft  |  Posted 2013-09-19 Print this article Print

However, "Ashton Tate was put on the auction block, and the investment bankers made a very convincing pitch that if we added installed market share to Borland's superior technology, we could become a leader for enterprise solutions," Kahn said.

Moreover, the bankers argued that if someone else like Microsoft or Lotus acquired Ashton-Tate, it would make things very difficult for Borland, he said.

"There was a lot of debate within Borland as to whether to acquire dBASE," Kahn said. "I was ambivalent. I always believe in technology and innovation first. This is the one time where I let the bankers talk us into a different path, and that was a big mistake. dBASE was legacy and we should, instead of buying dBASE, have invested in our own innovative tools.

Kahn said the dBASE acquisition became "my 'reality show of business school.' We learn the most from our mistakes."

Asked what the acquisition of Ashton-Tate did, in fact, bring to Borland, Kahn replied, "Headaches. The moment that we took responsibility for the dBASE legacy we had nothing but headaches, and we almost instantly regretted acquiring dBASE. It's a good lesson that focusing on innovation and invention are the best paths in technology. That's why ever since, I focus on developing unique, innovative IP."

Borland's goal was to take dBASE into the Windows era. But Microsoft had similar plans for its database technology. Microsoft introduced Access, the database component in Microsoft Office, in late 1992 and took over the Windows database market. Also in 1992, Microsoft bought Fox Software and its popular FoxPro database.

Prior to the introduction of Access, Borland, with Paradox and dBASE, and Fox, with FoxPro, dominated the desktop database market. However, Microsoft Access was the first major database program for Windows. With Microsoft's purchase of FoxPro and the incorporation of Fox's Rushmore query optimization routines into Access, the platform quickly became the dominant database for Windows—marginalizing the competition that failed to transition from the MS-DOS world.

dBASE still exists today and is marketed by dBASE LLC, where the latest version is dBASE PLUS 8. dBASE has evolved into a modern object-oriented language that runs on 32-bit Windows. It can be used to build a wide variety of applications, including Web apps hosted on a Windows server, Windows client applications and middleware applications. The new dBASE also can access most modern database engines via ODBC drivers.

Meanwhile, in another dBASE-related irony, Ashton-Tate and dBASE indirectly helped spawn the open-source movement when companies began to clone the dBASE components and provide third-party products. Ashton-Tate responded with threats and lawsuits.

In fact, at an industry conference, Ed Esber, CEO of the company stood up and challenged cloners with lawsuits, prompting a debate about the ownership of computer software and chants of "innovation not litigation." Yet, when Ashton-Tate's copyright infringement lawsuit against Fox Software went to court in 1990, the case was thrown out when the court found that dBASE was based on Vulcan, the public domain program created years ago at Wayne Ratliff's former employer, JPL.



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