The prophet of 'less is more'

Can Oracle's Larry Ellison challenge Microsoft with cheap 'network computers'? Nils Blythe investigates
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Larry Ellison is an hour and a half late for a carefully arranged interview. His staff are apologetic but not surprised. He is working out at the gym with the personal trainer he shares with Joe Montana, legendary quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. He will arrive when he wants to, the entourage indicates.

I am waiting at Ellison's extraordinary house near San Francisco. He lives alone here, after three divorces. The house's Japanese style reflects its owner's love of that country: samurai weapons and antiques stand between minimalist flower arrangements, and the absence of clutter makes it seem more like an art gallery than a home.

Ellison's reputation is that of a hard-driving tycoon, tough on competitors and his own staff. Access to him is guarded by layers of corporate management, which seem to hold him in awe and fear. But the man who finally arrives - in singlet and shorts from the gym - seems disarmingly shy, though eager to share his vision of the future.

The vision is striking. The personal computer as we know it today is "ridiculously expensive and ridiculously complicated". His plan is to launch a new generation of home computers designed to plug into networks such as the Internet. His "network computers" will store data and programs elsewhere on the network, and need only be complex enough to access the parts of the network they have to use. Like Ellison, they will be stripped for success: stripped-down memory, processors and local software and storage, with fast communications links.

The details of how it will integrate with existing networks and services are kept secret. But Ellison is confident that he will have a product ready next year, costing around $500 (pounds 350). "That's a promise," says Ellison. "Give me your address and I'll mail you one."

At first sight, the "network computer" seems a radical change of direction for Ellison's company, Oracle. He founded it in 1977 as a young computer programmer with just $1,200. It has grown into a company employing around 18,000 and valued at more than $18bn.

Oracle has focused on providing software for businesses. Tackling the home market is achallenge that some industry observers feel will prove difficult. Richard Brandt, executive editor of the Silicon Valley insider magazine Upside, is one of the sceptics. "He's trying to move Oracle, a successful business software company, into the consumer electronics field. No one is sure he can pull it off."

Ellison sees the progress towards new markets more as a logical progression. In recent years the company has been working on software for the infobahns of the future. It hasdeveloped one of the first systems of massively parallel computers that will enable phone companies to pump video-on-demand (VOD) services down telephone wires. The idea is that the customer at home will be able to choose from a line of films or TV programmes, start the movie when required, pause it and even fast-forward it. Oracle has provided some of the technology for British Telecom's VOD trials in Colchester.

The next step was to develop the set-top box that will be needed in the home to interpret the incoming VOD signals. Oracle is busy there.

Now Ellison believes the industry has reached a watershed. "The centre of gravity migrated from the mainframe to the personal computer, and is migrating to the network itself."

That change is one Ellison wants to exploit in an increasingly personal battle with Microsoft's Bill Gates. He compares Gates to John D Rockefeller, who once had a stranglehold on the US oil market.

"Bill has a monopoly on the computer world that he's exporting to generate incredible amounts of money for him and his shareholders."

Does he resent that monopoly? "I guess I always resent other people's monopolies," he laughs. "But the laws of business don't like vacuums and they don't like monopolies. Even IBM's monopoly only lasted for 25 years. Rockefeller's monopoly didn't last that long. Nor will Bill Gates and Microsoft's."

Ellison admits he is partly motivated by a sense of rivalry. "Microsoft is No 1 and we're No 2, so they are definitely the company we have in our sights and the company we have to beat."

Microsoft has noticed Oracle's ambitions - but only just. Craig Mundie, senior vice-president of Microsoft's consumer systems division, will concede only that Ellison is one of many rivals who would like to take Microsoft's crown, and is dubious about Oracle's plans.

"I think people who use computers will continue to demand that [the machines] get better in terms of the capabilities they provide," says Mundie. "There are new services you can provide through the network, but I don't believe they'll replace what we know today as the PC."

But Ellison is looking to the long term. "Is the PC the last computer ever to be invented? Is Windows the last operating system ever to be invented? I don't think so. So what's next?"

Ellison thinks he has found an answer in his vision of the cheap network computer. And he'll start delivering it next year. Remember, it was a promise.

The writer interviewed Larry Ellison for BBC 2's 'The Money Programme'.