Starfish rides on back of Microsoft

A software company is ready to make a fortune when Windows '95 launches
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The Independent Online
MICROSOFT'S launch on 24 August of its new Windows '95 operating system for personal computers will not only make its chief executive, Bill Gates, richer, it should also swell the bank balance of a former deadly rival, the former mathematician and part-time jazz musician Philippe Kahn.

In the software industry, Mr Kahn is better known as the founder and former chief executive of Borland, which makes a number of programs for PCs. Now he runs a tiny start-up company called Starfish Software, which has revenues of about $12m (pounds 7.4m). "That makes us about the 65th biggest software company in the US," Mr Kahn says. "But after Windows '95 is released, our revenues will probably go up to about $50m."

Windows '95 is a complete revamp of the Windows system already used on IBM Personal Computers and their clones. Windows made the operation of PCs much easier by introducing a set of "menus" from which users could choose what they wanted at the click of a key or a mouse button.

Starfish's products, called Sidekick and Dashboard, will be ready at the same time as the operating system, and have been written to take advantage of its new features - and omissions. Dashboard gives the computer's user the facility to monitor how busy the machine is and to switch quickly between different applications, such as word processing and spreadsheets. Sidekick offers a form of electronic Filofax, which will allow people to dial friends' numbers by pressing a few keys. "These aren't available as part of Windows '95," says Mr Kahn.

"We will be one of only two companies in the world that will really be ready with our product on the day that Microsoft ships Windows '95."

The new operating system is expected to break all previous records for sales, as companies around the world upgrade their systems to make use of its increased efficiency.

If they also buy Starfish's products, the sales will make it one of the top 25 software companies in the US. Mr Kahn believes that would also give it the critical mass needed to survive in the long term. "That's not bad for a company that's only been going 18 months," he says.

Both Sidekick and Dashboard were bought from Borland using Kahn's substantial personal fortune, which runs into millions of dollars. "It takes a few million dollars to start a software company," he says.

Having been ousted from his position as chief executive at Borland in a boardroom coup in January, he has been focusing full-time on the start- up venture. He still retains a significant holding in Borland, and remains its chairman. As befits Mr Kahn's image as an unconventional personality in a business peopled by corporate types, he is leading Starfish away from the industry trend, which is to write large software packages, such as word processing or spreadsheets, towards smaller products, which he calls "slimware", that fill in gaps.

"The idea of slimware is to focus on the 80 per cent of a product's functionality that will make it really useful, rather than adding the last 20 per cent." That extra 20 per cent, he says, makes software expand dangerously, so that where the useful 80 per cent can be put on to one floppy disk, the other 20 per cent makes it occupy six, and pushes the price and development time up in the same way. "It's about software craftsmanship," he says. "The issue is not what you should do, but what you leave out."

By cutting down the size of its products, Starfish is able to sell them over the Internet. "It takes about 20 minutes to send the Dashboard program over the phone line," says Mr Kahn. The company has sold a few thousand copies in this manner, though that will grow along with retail sales in coming months.