When Nat Goldhaber took the microphone at a Los Angeles press conference this summer sporting a scraggly beard, a boyish demeanor and a resume heavy on transcendental meditation, it appeared for a moment that he must have stumbled into the wrong room.
This was, after all, a computer industry press conference--sponsored by corporate titans IBM, Apple and Toshiba, no less--and the dissonance was intensified when he described himself as a "kid from Berkeley" and began talking about computers as vehicles for social progress.
But Goldhaber is no campus radical. Rather, he's a multimillionaire computer entrepreneur who flies his own plane and lives in a magnificent Mediterranean-style house in the Berkeley Hills. And on this day he was the guest of honor, making his public debut as chief executive of an Apple/IBM joint venture company called Kaleida Labs.
In his new job, Goldhaber, 44, is charged with helping to define an important new set of technologies that fall under the umbrella of "multimedia." If he succeeds, Kaleida software will form the basic standard for a new genre of devices that read text and images from special compact disks, communicate with new "interactive" television networks and generally render a rich variety of electronic information accessible to the average consumer.
It's a daunting task. Despite widespread agreement in the industry that some sort of common approach to multimedia development is desirable, many are highly skeptical of Kaleida's plans. They question the technical feasibility of the mission and distrust the motives of the powerful parent companies.
Yet Goldhaber's unusual turn of mind, which combines missionary zeal with a sharp eye for a good deal, might be just what Kaleida needs. Though his free-wheeling, playful style might not fit the stereotype of a corporate executive, the firm convictions that Goldhaber has brought to his varied pursuits have always been entwined with a hard-nosed drive for success.
"I have a lot of Berkeley righteousness about this job," Goldhaber says, portraying Kaleida as a unique opportunity to bring modern information technologies to the masses. "It actually does have some genuine social importance. If we're successful in executing . . . I think we can do some real good for the world."
Already, Goldhaber has made a mark in the computer business, building a computer networking company, TOPS, and selling it to Sun Microsystems in 1987 for $20 million. TOPS stands for transcendental operating system, a bow to his earlier efforts to help launch the Berkeley chapter of TM and later to found the Maharishi International University.
Goldhaber's idealistic views about what machines can accomplish aren't unique in the computer industry, and neither are his ideas about what machines can accomplish. Many of the personal computer pioneers of the 1960s and 1970s were driven by a political conviction that control over computer power should be wrested from corporate bureaucrats and put into the hands of Everyman.
By the early 1980s, however, much of that idealism had been buried beneath a multibillion-dollar industry that catered mostly to the needs of corporate America.
Yet Goldhaber believes that some of these principles--still present in pockets of Silicon Valley--can be reborn through multimedia.
"You have to buy a couple of premises," he says. "You have to believe that information about your world is empowering, or more accurately, that lack of information about your world is enslaving.
"There is a very large segment of the population that is utterly disenfranchised with respect to information: They don't get it, it doesn't affect their lives, and they are therefore unable to participate in the broader spectrum of social interaction.
"The reason for that is that information is presented in an unappealing manner. The way in which information is presented precludes their access. . . . It seems possible to deliver information in a way that delights and entices, as well as informs."
By creating a new genre of products that combine lots of sounds and images--and are truly easy to use--the divide between the computer literate and illiterate can be bridged, Goldhaber says.
But not everyone buys Goldhaber's premise that these kind of ideals can really be the foundation of a company.
Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corp. and a friend of Goldhaber's, cautions against pushing such notions too far.
"It better be the spice and not the substance," he says. "The PC phenomenon did not change the social structure, and I think in retrospect it was naive to think that a piece of technology would have a transforming affect on society."
Goldhaber doesn't see any contradiction between the pursuit of his ideals and the agressive pursuit of profit. In fact, he is an admirer of Ronald Reagan and a firm believer in free-enterprise as the key to solving social problems.