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Kahn the Barbarian : Technology: Philippe Kahn's Borland International has made a fortune by snubbing traditional ways. But some say success may dull the software company's competitive edge.

February 23, 1992|JONATHAN WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

And both are lead by relatively young, extremely intelligent, intensely competitive men who have demonstrated the rare ability to build a company from scratch and then manage a large and complex organization. Kahn trades barbs with Gates in public, yet he has consciously modeled Borland in Microsoft's image.

At the same time, though, Gates and Kahn are very different personalities who play different roles in the close-knit PC industry. Gates is almost ascetic in his devotion to the software business, while Kahn--who is married and has three children--still finds time to play the saxophone, fly airplanes and sail his 50-foot racing yacht.

And while Gates is considered the most powerful--and feared--man in the PC industry, Kahn remains the willful upstart. Industry pundit Esther Dyson recalls seeing Kahn and Gates talking privately at an industry conference. Kahn was shaking his finger and Gates was looking pained. She said the scene reminded her of Russian President Boris Yeltsin publicly scolding Mikhail Gorbachev.

Kahn has been battling the establishment since childhood. Kahn's parents were Jewish immigrants with few roots in France, and he was raised on the fringe of the fanciest neighborhood in Paris, forced to compete with the rich kids in school even though his family wasn't wealthy.

"I really worked hard at being good at stuff because I couldn't compete in any other way," he says.

He credits his mother, an Auschwitz survivor who died when he was 13, with instilling in him a powerful sense of "personal discipline," a will to work hard and achieve in all pursuits.

Kahn's father was a mechanical engineer and a die-hard Socialist. When the near-revolution of May, 1968, swept through Paris, the 16-year-old Kahn was already well-schooled in the writings of the left and self-confident enough to argue philosophy with Jean-Paul Sartre at the students' encampment at the Sorbonne.

But Kahn was ultimately drawn to mathematics and computer science, not politics. As a student in Zurich, he studied with the legendary computer science professor Niklaus Wirth, inventor of the computer language called Pascal. Kahn later taught mathematics at a French university.

The stultifying bureaucracy of French academia proved too much for the budding barbarian, however, and in 1982 he set off for Silicon Valley. Kahn says he had no desire to be an entrepreneur--he came to the United States looking for a job. But he lacked a critical credential--a green card--and ultimately decided that his only alternative was to start a company.

In a typically crafty move, Kahn called his nascent consulting firm Market in Time, figuring the acronym MIT would at least persuade people to open the mail. When the real MIT caught on to the trick, he took the name Borland--deep forest in ancient Celtic--which some Irish friends had used for a former company. In 1983, he began peddling a version of the Pascal language that he had written, using imaginative ruses to get equipment and advertising space on credit.

To his amazement, his Turbo Pascal language quickly began selling well via advertisements in trade publications. A little later, he developed a personal organizer called Sidekick and sold that the same way.

By 1985, Borland International was on its feet, and Kahn was building his bad boy reputation. He sped about in a white Porsche, threw a raucous company party which he attended in a toga, buffaloed reporters with funny but untrue stories about how Borland was founded, and generally had a good time with his newfound fame and fortune.

Some now view these shenanigans as a shrewdly calculated means of getting publicity for what was still a very small software company. But in many ways they were really just boyish mischief-making, an expression of Kahn's ebullient and contrarian personality, his colleagues say.

As Borland got bigger and the stakes got higher, though, Kahn began to mellow--especially when the company suffered losses and layoffs in 1988 as a result of being spread too thin.

"He started out thinking it was all a big game--he had great parties and thought it was fun," says Stewart Alsop, author of the P.C. Letter. "But at some point he realized that he could do something bigger than just have fun, and he was a smart enough guy and a big enough guy to realize that."

Kahn admits that he's grown up a bit. "These pranks, internally I might feel like doing them, but I stop myself."

In one of the most notorious incidents, Kahn arranged for copies of a negative magazine article about Lotus chairman Jim Manzi to be slipped under the hotel room doors of executives attending an industry conference. He says he would not do such a thing today.

Then he adds with mock seriousness: "I would never do that. It would be silly." He pauses. "It would be fun, though."

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