Micro man with a macro plan

Profile; Hermann Hauser: Now embroiled in the ESI affair, the grand old man of British computing is no stranger to disaster. But David Bowen finds he is still trying to change the world
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The Independent Online
INTERVIEWING Hermann Hauser is a little disconcerting. His first action after I sit down in his office in Cambridge is to transcribe my details on to the tiny computer he uses as his address book; his second is to pick up a fountain pen and write my name in a big black notebook.

As the man who, according to ICL's chief scientist, Bill O'Riordan, "brought computing to the little guy", it is not surprising that Hauser stores data electronically. And the fountain pen? Maybe experience has led him not to trust computers as much as most people do.

Hauser knows all too well what can go wrong in the hi-tech world. In 1985, he lost about pounds 100m when Acorn, the company he had jointly founded, fell off the edge of an electronic cliff. In the early 1990s, he founded the Active Book Company, which should have revolutionised the way we all work - and instead disappeared into oblivion.

Now he is embroiled in the increasingly acrimonious ESI affair. He and his joint venture partners ShareLink are at loggerheads with the Stock Exchange, which 10 days ago abruptly pulled the plug on Electronic Share Information, their Internet-based share service. The dispute worsened last week, when the Exchange issued a writ against ShareLink's chief executive, David Jones, for alleged defamation. Hauser will not say what he thinks about the LSE, though it is not hard to guess.

Not that everything he touches turns to lead. He has started 20 companies and - though no longer the 12th richest person in the country, as he was in 1984 - he is no pauper. Overall, he has got more things right than wrong.

Hauser is one of the grand old men of British computing. That does not mean he is old - he is a youthful 47, tall, blond, and sporting. Nor does it mean he is British: he was born in Vienna and grew up in the Tirol, where his family was in the wine-making business. When he was 16, he spent a summer in Cambridge learning English and fell in love with the place. After taking a physics degree in Vienna, he came back to do research, and has lived in Cambridge ever since.

The Cambridge Phenomenon - the rash of hi-tech start-ups - was embryonic in the 1970s. Hauser and Chris Curry, who had worked for Clive Sinclair, decided it was time to join in. "We had a well- thought-out business plan - that it's all happening in microprocessors, so we had better get into it."

Acorn Computer was started in 1978. It built a small computer called the Atom, which sold well but not spectacularly. Then it had a little help from Auntie.

In the early 1980s, the BBC decided to commission a low-cost machine that would be promoted alongside a television series. "They gave us the spec on Monday; I asked our technical people to get a computer ready by Friday." He knew the machine the BBC wanted was similar to one Acorn was planning. So, by working non-stop, Acorn was able to present the corporation with its first "BBC Micro" at the end of the week.

This coup infuriated Hauser's competitors, especially his arch-rival Clive Sinclair, but led to even greater things. The Government chose the BBC Micro as one of the computers it encouraged schools to buy, and it came to dominate that market. "Anybody who is anybody in computing had a BBC Micro," ICL's O'Riordan says. "It did more to educate people about computers than anything else."

The Micro acted as magic fertiliser on the company. It was the first British company to go from nought to pounds 100m sales in five years, and also the first to increase its shareholders' investment a millionfold. By 1983, Hauser's stake was worth pounds 100m - that year Acorn was floated, and he wisely put a few million to one side.

These were the glory days. "Bill Gates drove up from London to get a photo opportunity with me," he recalls. He admits he did not take the earnest American as seriously as he should have. Gates tried to sell him his MS-DOS operating system. "I showed him my operating system, which was much better," he says. "I said I couldn't take such a retrograde step." Shortly afterwards, Gates persuaded IBM it should install MS-DOS on its new PC range - and the rest is history.

Hauser blames himself for failing to understand what Gates knew well - that the secret of success is not to be technically brilliant, but to choose the right partners. "If I'd known then what I know now, the world could now be Acorn-compatible rather than IBM-compatible," he says.

Instead, as Gates took off, Hauser crash-landed. "By 1984, we had finally solved the problem of producing enough machines - but then the market turned down and we had no mechanism for turning off the tap." Computers produced in the Far East and Wales continued to flood in to Cambridge, and as Acorn's warehouses overflowed, its finances imploded. During 1985, it was bailed out twice by Olivetti, which ended up owning it. Hauser's paper fortune evaporated.

He does not duck reponsibility for the disaster. "Acorn wasn't the world's best-managed company," he says. O'Riordan agrees. "Hermann is a charismatic leader and he's technical - but I wouldn't say he's a great manager," he says.

Olivetti did not let Hauser go, though - he was put in charge of research and development,which seems strange given his own estimation of his technical skill. "I could probably build a computer but it would be a lousy one," he says. "My main contribution to IT companies is maybe I can see the wood from the trees, and maybe I can spot talent." But, the Italians knew this was false modesty. "He's a technological whizz, whatever he says," one computer expert says.

He left Olivetti after three years, but has retained close links with the company. He has also put his own money into 20 companies, picking those with technology that he believed could change the world.

He was one of the first to see the potential of multimedia, and one of his current companies, Advanced Telecommunications Modules, produces a system that allows company computer networks to carry multimedia - he believes it could displace the current standard networking system.

Cambridge Display Technology, another of his companies, is using a light- emitting plastic that could bring us wafer-thin televisions. Another, UK Online, is an electronic information service aimed at the British family.

Overall, his investments have done well - but when they have gone wrong, they have done so spectacularly. The Active Book Company, his first venture after Olivetti, aimed to produce a cross between a Psion electronic organiser and an Apple Newton, which uses a "pen" instead of keys. Hauser believed it would take over the world - instead, after the company had been sold to AT&T, it flopped. "What they were trying to do was spot-on," says David Tebbutt, an industry expert. "But the concept as manufactured was quite different, and was a dog."

At last, as a grand old man, Hauser is trying to correct the fault that afflicted so many Cambridge companies - including his own. "There has been far too much emphasis on research and development," he says. "Now we are beefing up the sales, marketing and management sides."

But it seems unlikely that he will correct his own weakness that is also a strength. "He wants the future here more quickly than it wants to arrive," Tebbutt says. "He's a like a slightly out-of-control child - you're amused at things he does, but thank God he's not one of your own."