Back in the early 1980s, he invented affordable software with products such as Turbo Pascal and Sidekick. For a decade, he went head-to-head with technology titans like Microsoft and Lotus. More recently, he founded a company to send photos wirelessly--before any consumer owned a cell phone that could take pictures.
He's Philippe Kahn, and at a Computer History Museum event last week, he talked about his career in technology from the early days of his software company, Borland, to his current company, LightSurf. The firm powers many wireless phones that can zap snapshots over the Internet.
Paris to Palo Alto
Kahn got into the PC business before a PC business really existed. In the mid-1970s, he was a programmer for the Micral, a French system that some historians call the first microcomputer. But in 1982, he relocated to the burgeoning northern California technology center known as Silicon Valley. "People say I came to America," he says. "I came to Silicon Valley. It happened to be in America."
"My first job was on Page Mill Road in Palo Alto at HP labs," Kahn said, calling it the era's "epicenter of innovation." Hewlett-Packard needed a programmer with experience in queuing; Kahn assured them he was an expert on the topic, then went home and crammed on the topic. "There were no espressos in Silicon Valley, so I drank coffee all night."
But the HP job ended after three days, when the company discovered he was in the U.S. on a tourist visa. HP said it could work with him if he became a consultant: "I thought, a consultant is someone looking for work--and I said sure, that's what I am."
So Kahn formed a consultancy called Market In Time, with the fortuitous initials MIT. And soon, he says, "I became relatively successful."
The Birth of Borland
Oddly enough, Kahn's Computer History Museum talk went for more than half an hour without more than oblique mention of his most famous company, Borland International, from which he resigned in 1995. In 1991, the company had entered into a costly and controversial merger with Ashton-Tate, the company behind the once-dominant DBase database; neither DBase nor Borland thrived in the post-merger era.
When Kahn opened the floor to questions, though, many involved his Borland days. He cheerfully barked "Next question!" in response to the first two. But gradually, he opened up.
When an audience member asked how Borland got its name, he explained that at Market in Time, he had provided tech-support services for an Irish software company called Borland. That company went bankrupt at the same time that a better-known MIT--namely, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology--sent Market In Time an angry letter about Kahn's use of the MIT acronym.
"I've been known to pick intellectual property fights in my time--all the way to the Supreme Court," said Kahn, referring to a long-running lawsuit between Lotus and Borland over the 1-2-3-like user interface of Borland's Quattro Pro spreadsheet. (The Supreme Court found in Borland's favor in 1995.) But Kahn responded to MIT's complaint by striking a deal with Borland: He'd forgive its debts in return for control over its name, stationery, and other assets. "And that's how we named the company Borland," he said.
From Scrappy to Success
Kahn's Borland was, initially, a small and scrappy underdog. When Kahn traveled to Las Vegas to promote his Turbo Pascal programming language in 1983, he couldn't afford to exhibit at the show: Comdex founder Sheldon Adelson, Kahn says, sneeringly suggested that he hold a press conference at McDonald's.
So Kahn did just that, setting up a portable computer at the McDonald's on the Strip. Legendary Byte computer columnist Jerry Pournelle attended and liked what he saw. "For three issues of Byte, "all he could talk about was Turbo Pascal and Borland," Kahn recalled.
Pournelle's enthusiasm was a boon, says Kahn, as was Borland's decision to staff trade-show booths with "good-looking girls" to promote the company's products to the mostly-male crowds of programmers. But ultimately, he says, the company's success came because it "had the best tools, and they were priced aggressively."
Asked by another audience member what Borland, Starfish (a Kahn startup that was later acquired by Motorola), and LightSurf had in common, Kahn said, "One common theme is relentless hard work and focus."
Running a successful company, Kahn said, "is very much like running a successful sports team. You end up being a great coach. You end up understanding the value of different people."
Out of the Office
But Kahn is nearly as famous for his extracurricular interests as he is for the companies he has run. "It's great to do other things to clear your mind," he explained.
Boating has been a longtime passion: This summer, his team won the 42nd Transpacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu. And Kahn is an accomplished musician who released CDs of his jazz performances back in his Borland days.
Kahn compared early yacht designs to the vintage PCs on display at the museum, saying both have a purity and simplicity that makes them classics. "They were pretty much perfect," he said of early yacht designs, "and they're still being raced at the Olympics."
As for music, he says it's not such a different discipline from his day job: "Music and mathematics are tied together--there's a lot of affinity."
Phones and the Future
LightSurf, Kahn's current company, came into being when his daughter Sophie was born in 1997. Wanting to share pictures of the newborn with friends and family, Kahn set up the necessary technology right at the hospital.
"Everybody thought I was a model father," he recalled, "but I was basically building a system. I stayed in the maternity [ward] two days."
Soon, Kahn and his wife, Sonia Lee, were setting up LightSurf, with the goal of making it easier to share snapshots on the fly. But the necessary hardware--camera phones--only arrived recently. Today, Kahn said, LightSurf is "providing the underpinnings of instant imaging--the Polaroid of the 21st century."
LightSurf's goal is to make a complex process transparently easy, Kahn explained. He described a scenario in which 20,000 Super Bowl spectators all take and transmit a photo at the same time.
Some privacy advocates have worried about a world in which cell phones essentially become hidden cameras, but Kahn pooh-poohs their concerns. He noted that one of his heroes was Walter Zapp, who invented the Lilliputian and easily-concealed Minox camera in the 1930s.
Asked about his vision of the future, Kahn laughed: "I keep a few secrets, but I'll share some of it. I do believe there's a fundamental revolution and paradigm shift with [camera phones]. More and more, they do everything you want to do. You're not tied to a place or location."
And what of people who doubt his vision? Earlier in the evening, Kahn had said he was used to confronting naysayers. "When you try and innovate things," he mused, "people think you're nuts."