Ellison finds Gates in way when he consults Oracle

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When Larry Ellison of Oracle asks the mirror on the wall who is the richest and most powerful of them all, he is still hearing "Bill Gates" and it drives him nuts. Now he is trying a variation: "Who is the most generous?"

The famously combative Mr Ellison might have hoped that, challenged with that question, the mirror by now would be responding with his name. On Tuesday, after all, he announced plans to spend $100m (pounds 60m) to help put Network Computers, or NCs, on the desks of school pupils all across America.

As it happens, however, Mr Ellison's chagrin must be stronger than ever. It seems that between him and Mr Gates another kind of rivalry has broken out: who, between them, can win the race to claim the title as the Andrew Carnegie of the late 20th Century?

And once again, Mr Ellison is finding himself eclipsed by the miracle man from Microsoft. Also this week - in fact just 24 hours before the Ellison announcement - Mr Gates went public with a pledge of $200m to be spent equipping schools and libraries with personal computers. Microsoft itself will provide an additional $200m in software to libraries.

Microsoft insists that its plan had been in the works for at least 18 months and that its unveiling just hours before Mr Ellison's gesture was nothing more than an "unbelievable coincidence".

At Oracle, however, suspicion runs deep. The company is already in a battle with Microsoft to promote the NC, a stripped-down appliance that draws power from a network, in place of PCs that mostly run on Microsoft software. Officials believe that they were deliberately sandbagged by Microsoft.

Mr Ellison himself said tartly on Tuesday: "It took Microsoft one year to respond to the Internet, six months to respond to the network computer and only six hours to respond to our donation".

Oracle's president, Raymond Lane, described the Microsoft move as "pretty tacky".

Regardless of what is driving them, the donations made by both men promise to open a new chapter in American philanthropy.

For some years already, eyes have been fixed on Mr Gates in particular, whose personal worth on paper is some $18bn, for some sign of interest in giving instead of hoarding.

The multi-billion-earning hi-tech industry has long been seen as laggardly in charity work. CNN mogul Ted Turner said last year. "These new super- rich won't loosen their wads because they're afraid they'll reduce their net worth and go down the list."

"Legitimately, they ought to be applauded for their generosity," Steve Paprocki, the research director at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, said. "Nobody is giving $300m of anything away these days."

But just as 19th Century philanthropists had motives that were not entirely selfless, so Messrs Gates and Ellison have much to gain. At the crudest level, there are obvious long-term sales strides to be made. As important, though, is helping to train the next generation of Americans in hi-tech literacy.