Bill and Larry's war of words

Roger Ridey was ringside when Bill Gates and Larry Ellison renewed their battle in Paris
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It had been the most eagerly anticipated rematch since Ali-Frazier, but the debate over the future of computing between the software heavyweights Bill Gates and Larry Ellison was more a Tyson-Bruno affair last week at the International Development Corporation's European IT Forum in Paris. And it was the Microsoft chairman who ended up taking most of the blows on the chin.

At last year's forum, Gates and Ellison, the chief executive officer of the US software giant Oracle, clashed when Ellison launched his idea for a "network computer" - a low-cost, easy-to-use personal computer that would require neither the Microsoft operating system nor its application software. Gates dismissed the NC as "Larry's silly idea". Since then, the computer industry has been sharply divided over the network computer.

Both returned to Paris last week, and although Gates remains sceptical of a computer that is designed to break Microsoft's overwhelming dominance of the software market, he has softened his views. When asked his opinion of the NC, he replied: "That's a trick question. The PC is a network computer," although he admitted that in the future "there will be a variety of devices" for accessing the information superhighway.

Gates also defended Microsoft's Internet strategy and sought to downplay the so-called "browser wars" with rival Netscape. He said the Net was "a tool for freedom" and that the software used to access the Internet was not as important as the content of the Net itself.

While he was addressing the gathering of IT executives, Gates's face was appearing on the cover of Time magazine - in the less than flattering form of a spider on the Web. Bill does not see himself as an arachnid, but rather a tradesman. "We're just plumbers here," he said.

"Sure, he's just a plumber, but he wants to be the only plumber in town," said Ellison when took the podium to demonstrate Oracle's network computer. He said the high cost of owning a PC and the difficulty in using them were the reasons for developing the NC (earlier, Gates helped Ellison make his case when a demonstration of Microsoft's browser crashed).

Ellison said that despite the PC's popularity, 70 per cent of households in the United States and 90 per cent in Europe and Japan do not have computers in the home. "There will never be an Information Age until 90 per cent of households have computers," he said. And it is the network computer he is planning to put in those households, although he was willing to concede that it would not replace the PC.

NCs would be on the market by the end of the year, Ellison said, some priced as low as $200. The computers are a sort of stripped-down PC that utilise applications stored on remote servers, thus eliminating the need to upgrade software. Apparrently targeting the "don't know how to set my video" market, he said the NC "had to be able to do what I want to do, but be simple enough for my mother to operate".

The Gates-Ellison battle is likely to resume next year in Paris. In the meantime, Keith Todd, CEO of ICL, had a warning for his colleagues. "Those who are successful today should not be too self-satisfied," he said.

They were words that would not have been lost on one of the scheduled speakers who was unable to attend the forum - the former Olivetti CEO Carlo De Benedetti.