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.
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.
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.
Now Kahn is working toward fulfilling a new evolution of his vision at the yet-unlaunched Fullpower. Although Kahn and wife Sonia Lee founded Fullpower in 2003, the companys Web site says: “Fullpower is in stealth mode, focused on the convergence of Life Sciences and Wireless. We will launch publicly on September 15th, 2007.”
Observers say the company will provide solutions converging life sciences, wireless technology, nanotechnology and Microelectromechanical Systems.
“At Fullpower, weve been working with the team for three years,” Kahn said. “We are continuing to build technology that will help take the camera phone, media players and mobile game consoles to the next level. At Fullpower, we are a core technology company. We have this image of being to the wireless industry what Dolby Labs is to the media industry.”
The Fullpower Web site also features articles about diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Perhaps, in some future capacity, rather than competing with Microsofts Bill Gates as he did in the past, Kahn might find himself somehow working with Gates to find cures for illnesses as Gates looks ahead to philanthropic aspirations beyond Microsoft.
Meanwhile, ever the technologist, particularly one steeped in the software development world, Kahn shared some thoughts on the state of the industry.
The excitement for software development is now with mobile devices: camera phones, media players and handheld game consoles, Kahn said.
“Thats where the innovation and the excitement are,” he said. “These mobile devices work connected and integrated with a complex software and hardware infrastructure. Take the camera phone, it is more than a digital camera integrated into a mobile phone. The camera phone is successful because it delivers on instant Visual Communications by being fully integrated in a complex real-time sharing infrastructure.
“So the opportunity is now to build end-to-end solutions that are very complex and involve mobile components, massively scalable carrier-grade infrastructure, and all the communications protocols and security. Hence, this is all much more complex than building a spreadsheet on a Mac or a PC. And we like that because it is a technology-driven business in which we technologists can make a difference.”
Moreover, Kahn said he believes there are three core constituents in the high-tech industry these days: the Web 2.0 players who largely exploit marketing opportunities pioneered by Yahoo and Google; the suppliers of enterprise tools who are mostly evolving offerings from the 80s and early 90s, such as Oracle, Microsoft, SAP, Borland and others; and finally the technology innovators such as Fullpower, which are focused on the wireless industry with camera phones, media players and mobile game consoles and their relevant infrastructure. “Thats a very complex and exciting space with great opportunities.”
Indeed, “Apple just changed their name from Apple Computer to Apple with the introduction of the iPhone,” Kahn said. “Thats a sign post that says it all.”
NOTE: This is my maiden voyage out here in this space. My editor asked me if I wanted to take over this slot. I agreed, but you just dont “take over” for a Peter Coffee. Coffee is an original, and we retired his number. So Im going to take my shot and have at it. I dont know that I can make this column sing like Coffee did, but as Ray Charles was known to say: “Ima make it do what it do.”
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