Philippe Kahn: Original Software Gangsta Still on a Mission

Opinion: Kahn shows that he has nine lives and then some. The Borland founder started with a vision of empowering developers, revved the PC software world, created the camera phone and is looking ahead to making some even more meaningful change for

I was kickin it old school with one of the original gangstas of the software business last week—the PC software business, that is. And he showed me that true technologists never die, they just keep building on their vision.

Philippe Kahn, CEO of Fullpower Technologies and industry icon, pinged me last week to touch base. Philippe is an original gangster, or OG in the vernacular, of the industry, having founded Borland in 1983 and leading it to become one of the foremost PC software companies of its time before he left in 1995.

Though Borland is less of a force now than it once was, its name still rings of a commitment to developers that Kahn brought alive when he ran the company. Indeed, Kahn pushed for open standards long before the term became commonplace, and he proposed to fight for the rights of programmers, as part of a long, bitter legal battle with Lotus.

What I remember most about Kahn in those days was his large-living, hard-charging personality, which led him to head-to-head competition with the likes of Microsoft and Lotus. Kahn was absolutely in his element hawking products and pitching his vision for new innovations, whether in ballrooms at Caesars or at events at the Rainbow Room at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. And he always had time for a curious reporter calling on him in the wee hours of an East Coast morning.

Borland boasts so many hot-ticket items in the industry that its not funny. Anders Hejlsberg of Microsoft is a former Borlander, Adam Bosworth of Google is another, and Brad Silverberg—who left to go to Microsoft and is now a venture capitalist—is yet another. And there are countless others in key roles throughout the industry. The company turned out lots of hits in addition to Turbo Pascal, including Sidekick, Quattro, C++ compilers, database technology and the Delphi programming environment. In later years the company turned out products like Kylix, JBuilder, C#Builder and others.

/zimages/3/28571.gifGoogles Bosworth talks about what makes software and technology falter or thrive. Click here to read more.

With his vision to empower developers fulfilled, Kahn moved to head a company called Starfish Software, whose goal was the global synchronization and integration of wireless and wireline devices, according to the companys literature. Motorola acquired Starfish in 1998.

Meanwhile, in 1997, while Kahn was in the process of forming his next venture, LightSurf Technologies, his wife, Sonia Lee, gave birth to their daughter Sophie. And Kahn gave birth to the concept of the camera phone, another vision.

Kahn said he took his laptop, digital camera and cell phone into the hospital with him to take photos of his new baby and send them around to friends. He said he had to make a kludgy device to make his invention work as a unit, but he rigged a primitive camera phone.

"Andy Seybold, the well-known wireless guru, was on my list and got those pictures and contacted me immediately and said: This is really cool, it looks like youre doing this in real time, live. How do you do this? I want one," Kahn said. "Thats when Sonia and I realized that this would be the essence of our new company, LightSurf. Motorola was in the process of acquiring Starfish, and the rest happened in the market.

"Next year, 1 billion camera phones will be sold worldwide," Kahn added.

/zimages/3/28571.gifBorlands early years were a "wild ride." Click here to read more.

As for the early "incubator" version, Kahn said, "By the time Sophie was born, I had it working and I was sending pictures all around the world and sharing them automatically on a Web server. It was very cool. Remember, that was June 1997, phones were character-based with four lines and 25 characters by line."

With the concept proven, the rush was on to fulfill this new vision. "So we had the prototype fully functioning, the adrenaline was rushing, and by 1999 J-Phone in Japan was shipping Sha-Mail with a Sharp camera phone," Kahn said. "Sprint was the first to launch PictureMail in 2002 in the U.S."

PictureMail, which enables users to send pictures taken with a cell phone as messages, is a LightSurf technology. LightSurf is now owned by VeriSign.

Next Page: Fullpower ahead.