[credit provider=”Bloomberg ” url=”http://www.bloomberg.com/video/65006540/”]
When most people write about Larry Ellison, they tend to focus on his wealth, and his pugnacious attitude.He is the world’s fifth richest man, and his motto for life comes from Genghis Khan: “It’s not sufficient I succeed. Everyone else must fail.”
It’s hard to resist writing about Ellison spending $400 million to win the America’s cup. Or other crazy tales, like having his best friend Steve Jobs as a photographer at his wedding, or the rumour that he flew one of his fighter jets under the Golden Gate bridge just for fun.
Those are all entertaining ways to cover Ellison, but when we watched a Bloomberg documentary on Ellison last fall, one thing that stood out was his foresight about how the internet was going to change the world, and disrupt personal computing.
Long before Apple released the iPad, Ellison decided to launch the Network Computer, a cheap, simple computer that would do email, web-surfing, and a few other basic tasks.
Not only was the NC, as it was called, going to open a new line of business for Oracle, which was mostly geared towards big corporations, it was also going to cripple Microsoft, and Ellison’s personal enemy, Bill Gates.
The NC flopped, but it provides a great deal of insight into Ellison as a person, and as a visionary thinker.
Ellison is the cofounder and CEO of Oracle, which deals with the drab business of enterprise software and databases. Oracle’s software is a key backbone for the internet and is widely used by the government and banking sectors.
Ellison came up with the idea for Oracle after reading a paper about relational databases from IBM research. A relational database simply makes it easier to organise information. Instead of a static collection of data, you can sort information more easily.
Through aggressive salesmanship Ellison turned Oracle into one the most valuable companies in the world. (For the fiscal year ended May 2010, Oracle generated $27 billion in revenue, and its market valuation is $170 billion.)
Despite his success through the years, Ellison harbored (harbors still?) a somewhat baffling resentment towards Bill Gates and Microsoft.
Microsoft and Oracle are in two different businesses, but for some reason Ellison resented Bill Gates for a long time.
Part of it surely stems from the fact that when Oracle hit the public markets on March 12, 1986, it had a valuation of $270 million. But just a day later Microsoft hit the public markets, and its valuation was $700 million. From there on in, Oracle was in Microsoft’s shadow.
Ellison is the kind of guy that keeps a scoreboard in his mind, tracking who’s winning and who’s losing. Microsoft at more than double the value of Oracle, was clearly winning.
Beyond the material wealth, Gates was hailed as a visionary and a genius by the mainstream press. Ellison was also seen as a genius, but not in the same way. He wasn’t affecting people’s lives in the same personal way.Ellison’s hatred for Gates was so strong that Oracle hired a private investigator to root through Microsoft’s trash and uncover damaging secrets. In an interview with Fortune he said of the incident, “Unsavory, yucky — kind of. But legal.”
And by “yucky” he means it literally, not figuratively. In a different interview he said of the incident, “Some of the things our investigator did may have been unsavory. Certainly from a personal hygiene point they were. I mean garbage … yuck.”
He claimed his investigators were doing a public service, trying to discover how Microsoft was shaping public opinion through front groups. The investigators never turned up anything on Microsoft.
A few years prior to the investigation, Ellison tried a more conventional attack on Microsoft with the Network Computer. It was supposed to disrupt Windows.
Ellison really believed people were going to reject Windows for a simpler solution.
He told Charlie Rose in 1996, “This Windows 95 is an enormously complicated piece of software and the idea that people are going to install this in their households and manage these things in their households to me is hilarious … and it’s time for something that’s easier to use.”
Windows 95 went on to be a massive consumer success. His Network Computer, on the other hand flopped. Consumers didn’t buy the computer and Oracle gave up on it.
Despite the fact that the computer failed, it was a brilliant idea which was later vindicated by Ellison’s good friend, Steve Jobs.
The iPad is currently disrupting the Windows hegemony. Netbook sales — which are like the Network Computer, themselves — are slipping, and analysts attribute it to the rise of the iPad and tablet computers.
The iPad, like the NC before it, is a cheap, simple web surfing computer.
While Ellison gets the most credit for realising the power of a relational database, he also deserves credit for realising the web was going to transform the world of personal computing.
He was just a few years early. But, most visionaries are a little ahead of their time.