Can Ellison win once again?

Never underestimate Larry Ellison. Former PeopleSoft Inc. CEO Craig Conway is the most recent of those vanquished by the rogue from Redwood City. But there’s another triumph coming that might be sweeter for Ellison if only because other people thought he stumbled badly a half-dozen years ago.

In 1995, Ellison boldly told the world that he would take on the Microsoft Corp. monolith with a new breed of computing device, dubbed the network computer. This would be a low-power, stripped-down hardware platform running a low-power, stripped-down operating system with a Web browser as its user interface. Ellison touted a vision of a US$500 computing device on everyone’s desktop. From this idea was born the entire application service provider model of computing in which users would no longer purchase software licenses, but would rent or lease the services as they needed them delivered via the browser on their network computer.

The ideas garnered lots of support in the mid-1990s but eventually floundered as people wanted more power on their desktop. With prices on standard PCs dropping below US$1,000, the network computer looked less desirable. We’d thought Microsoft had won that war, but it might have only won a battle.

Recently Bob Bailey, CEO of chip maker PMC-Sierra, announced a new consortium of chip makers aligned with Asian (primarily Chinese) manufacturers that would re-launch the network computer, dubbed by some the “open source” computer. One major difference with the new network computer would be price — Bailey estimated a retail target of US$150. Not only would it cost less, but it also would do more.

The new network computer would run an almost free distribution of Linux coupled with free or low-cost open source applications on top of a commoditized hardware platform. The new network computer’s success isn’t guaranteed, of course, but the genesis was Ellison’s idea. And to paraphrase the late Jim Croce:

Don’t tug on Superman’s cape Don’t spit into the wind Don’t pull the mask off the Lone Ranger And you don’t mess with Larry Ellison.

Kearns, a former network administrator, is a freelance writer and consultant in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at