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Thinking outside the cube
Philippe Kahn programmed one of the first personal computers, now he's developing wireless Net technology that could unchain people from their PCs.

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By Sean Donahue

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Sept. 27, 1999 | The words "Internet entrepreneur" make most people think of whiz-kids barely out of college. But Philippe Kahn, CEO of Starfish Software, is an Internet entrepreneur with a track record as old as the PC itself. The French-born mathematician began his career in Zurich, Switzerland, working on the Pascal computer language, and then became one of the first programmers on the Micral prototype computer in 1973. Although the project never made it into the U.S. market, it's considered the first true PC, predating even the Altair.

By 1982, Kahn had emigrated to the United States and used his programming experience to create Borland International (now Inprise), a pioneering software development tools company that was for a time one of the world's largest software companies. At Borland, Kahn waged a tough head-to-head battle with Microsoft that eventually led to Borland's near financial collapse and Kahn's resignation in 1994. But Kahn, 47, isn't bitter about the experience. Instead, he credits his Microsoft-dealt defeat with helping spur his move to the Internet.

Starfish Software, which Kahn founded with Sonia Lee in 1994, focuses exclusively on technology that links Web applications to wireless devices such as cell phones, hand-held organizers and pagers, as well as desktop PCs. His vision is of a future that is not PC-dependent, but one in which computer appliances like cell phones and organizers connect to the Net or with each other to provide us with all the information we need.

Wireless giant Motorola, impressed with the company's wireless Internet technology, snapped up Starfish in 1998. Kahn has retained the CEO slot in Starfish's Santa Cruz, Calif., offices, and this year launched a start-up called LightSurf, which he says is a top-secret venture that will expand wireless Net capabilities to include imaging and photographic applications. (Despite my asking many questions, he would say no more about LightSurf.)

Though his passion for technology remains keen, Philippe Kahn's priorities have changed a fair bit from his warring-with-Microsoft era. These days, whether he's playing jazz, snowboarding, sailing competitively or building new technology, having fun is what inspires him the most. Salon spoke with Kahn while he was in San Francisco preparing for a sailing race.

As a former Microsoft competitor, do you have any advice for Judge Jackson as he prepares a decision on the antitrust suit?

Although I have competed with Microsoft, I have always preferred to pursue innovation rather than litigation. I don't want to get into whether Microsoft is a monopoly and what's legal or not, because I'm a technologist and I'm personally not interested in that discussion.

It's no secret that Microsoft doesn't succeed through innovation. They succeed through leveraging their incredible position in operating systems and their financial power to move into new markets. Whether that's illegal or not, I don't know. Actually, to date the courts have said it's perfectly legal. Take the complaint that Microsoft gave away its browser for free just to try and put Netscape out of business. Isn't that exactly the same thing Sun Microsystems plans to do with Star Office? They're going to give away Star Office to compete against Microsoft Office, and that has nothing to do with thin-clients or innovation. It's simply Sun doing to Microsoft what Microsoft did to Netscape and Borland. Is that illegal? I'm not sure, but so far no court has said it's illegal.

As far as a broken-up Microsoft, people should be concerned that they may get what they ask for, and that two Microsofts may in fact increase Microsoft's total market dominance. Look at AT&T;, Lucent and the Baby Bells: They're are all doing very well right now.

. Next page | Forget cell phones, what we need is global wireless messaging

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