When Oracle Corp. Chairman Larry Ellison read a Microsoft Corp. ad contrasting PC and pencils in The Wall Street Journal on March 12, he saw red.
Or perhaps it was lead. Pencil lead.
Ellison was piqued because he, too, compared PCs and pencils in a speech-last March-when he addressed the Commonwealth Club of California in San Francisco. "I think our prospects for the 21st century are rather bleak if we cannot get our PC to be more like pencils," he said at the time. In the speech, Ellison went on to offer a brief history of pencils, praising their simplicity and imploring that computers be more like them.
Ellison was incredulous at what he viewed as outright pilferage. "I cracked up. I had to laugh," he said Monday. "Should all technology come from Redmond? It's Microsoft vs. mankind."
The latest war of words isn't entirely over something as silly as who first compared computers to pencils. Rather, it's a battle for potential customers of forthcoming network computers, a concept Microsoft originally pooh-poohed, then heartily embraced.
On April 15 in Tokyo, Oracle will unveil its first (or second, depending on how you count) Network Computer. Ellison may have been feeling upstaged by Microsoft, which just unveiled its own network computer initiative at the CeBIT show in Germany. Called the Zero Administration for Windows Initiative, Microsoft's plan calls for the use of bare-bones PCs administered from a server.
Yet Ellison does not find Microsoft's imitation at all flattering.
"I thought about Microsoft's four stages of stealing a business," Ellison said. "First, they say it's the dorkiest idea. A Microsoft executive actually called me a dork [over the network computer]. Second, they acknowledge there might be something there. Third, they say, 'Our network computer is better than yours.' Fourth, they steal your marketing plan.
"Microsoft is the great follower. Look at the Macintosh and Windows," Ellison growled.
Of course, Microsoft does not admit to stealing Larry's pencil box.
"We've been using that comparison since Oct. 26 [when the Zero Administration concept was made public]. The analogy was made by our creative team. None of them knew about Larry's speech. Evidently, it's a coincidence," said Jonathan Roberts, director of product marketing for Windows.
Asked about the perception that Microsoft steals ideas from others, Roberts took the high road. "When accusations are that broadly based, it does not serve you to respond that broadly. Obviously, what he says aggravates me, but I don't choose to respond in kind."
Will Microsoft scratch the ad? "I think it's on the schedule. I suspect we will run it again," Roberts said.