Heart of Darkness

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For no particular reason that I can remember, the topic turned to Ashton-Tate, publisher of the widely popular dBASE database program. Seymour started talking about a meeting he'd attended with other members of the press where Ed Esber, CEO of the database giant, addressed the group. As he began talking about Esber, his face suddenly developed an expression of contempt. He told us how during the speech Esber had stated at one point that he wasn't necessarily the smartest guy in software. Seymour paused, then looked at our group, and said, "We were all thinking, boy, you've got that right, Ed." The venom in his voice was surprising.

I didn't pay much attention to the exchange at the time, but after leaving MicroPro to become a product manager at Ashton-Tate, I later realized I'd had my first glimpse into the dark heart of one of software's biggest and most unexpected meltdowns. As events progressed in the industry, it became clear that as far as the PC press was concerned, it was "Ed Esber. He's dead." They wanted his head on a stake.

Ashton-Tate at its height in the 1980s was one of software's "Big Three," the other members of the triumvirate being Microsoft and Lotus. Microsoft had DOS, Lotus ruled spreadsheets, and Ashton-Tate was the database king. The lucrative word-processing franchise was being fought over by MicroPro, WordPerfect, MultiMate, Microsoft with its Word product, and a host of smaller players.

dBASE was originally designed to help place winning bets in football pools and was the creation of Wayne Ratliff, a contract programmer at the U.S. Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Although Ratliff didn't get rich on sports betting, he did decide his new software program had commercial potential. Named "Vulcan" in honor of the home planet of Star Trek's Mr. Spock, Ratliff placed his first ad for the product in the October 1979 issue of BYTE magazine. At its release, Vulcan was priced at $50.00, and though there was flurry of initial interest,1 the stress of trying to

1 I was one of the initial purchasers. After purchasing my copy of Vulcan, I taught myself how to program in it and began developing applications that ran on CP/M and MP/M, the multiuser version of CP/M. My specialty was in building inventory tracking and control programs for beer and soda distributors in New York City.

ship, support, and manage a one-man company was overwhelming. Ratliff was on the verge of ceasing operations when software reseller George Tate contacted him.

Tate and his partner, Hal Lashlee, took a look at Vulcan, quickly realized its potential, and bought exclusive distribution rights. At the time of the deal they were running a not-very-successful mail-order software company called Software Plus. Believing that Vulcan would turn things around for their company, they renamed the company AshtonTate to give it a more "upscale" image. (A great deal of speculation has centered over where Tate came up with "Ashton"—no one who worked at the company had that name. The general belief is it was picked because Ashton sounded "British." It should be noted, however, that Tate had a pet parrot named Ashton.)

After a quick trademark search uncovered potential problems with the name Vulcan, the product was rechristened dBASE II. There was no dBASE I, but even in the early 1980s people were reluctant to buy 1.0 releases of software products. The company upped the cost of dBASE II to $695.00, a very competitive price for a product in its class and with its capabilities, and placed full-page magazine ads featuring a picture of a sump pump and the proclamation that while the pump might suck, dBASE didn't (or words to that effect). Sales took off, and by 1985 Ashton-Tate's revenues were more than $100 million a year and climbing, mostly from sales of dBASE II and its successors, dBASE III and III+. The company also enjoyed modest sales success with its Framework, an integrated product. Integrated products attempted to combine word processing, database management, a spreadsheet, and graphics all within a single program. Framework was considered the best of breed in this market segment, but the integrateds, which included software such as Lotus Symphony and Ability,2 never sold in the numbers projected, and the category largely disappeared in the early 1990s.

2 The success of Lotus 1-2-3 convinced the industry that if adding rudimentary graphics and some simple sorting capabilities to a spreadsheet was good, then adding the kitchen sink had to be better. Integrated products usually added word processing, more graphics, better database capabilities, and communications to the mix. Some of the integrateds simply extended an existing product further; Lotus Symphony, for instance, allowed you to create documents in one big cell in a spreadsheet. Ashton-Tate's Framework operated on an outline paradigm. Integrated products tended to be big and cumbersome wads of code that lacked robust capabilities, the worst of both worlds.

In addition to ads featuring plumbing, another reason for dBASE's quick rise to prominence was that the company made much of the fact that dBASE was a relational database management system (RDBMS). The relational model was first introduced in a paper published in 1969 by an English computer scientist, Dr. E. F. Codd, who worked for IBM. More flexible and expandable than competing technologies, relational products over time were adopted by most DBMS developers and users.

In addition to a table-oriented paradigm, Codd's definition of an RDBMS also incorporated several key capabilities and functions a product needed to possess before it could be called a "truly" relational system. None of the early RDMBS systems for the PC incorporated all of Codd's requirements, and religious arguments raged constantly over which product was "more" or "less" relational than another. dBASE II was probably "less" relational than some of its competitors, but that also meant it could run on systems with less memory and reach a broader audience. Despite the pooh-poohing of purists, for several years dBASE became almost synonymous with the relational concept.

In 1985, Tate died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 40, and Esber, his second in command, took over the leadership of AshtonTate. Esber was a Harvard-trained MBA and a former product manager at VisiCorp, the company that had seen its VisiCalc spreadsheet eclipsed by Lotus 1-2-3. Esber announced he was going to bring a more professional management style to Ashton-Tate, replacing Tate's more hands-on and emotional approach. Despite having a bachelor's degree in computer engineering, Esber didn't have a reputation of being technically astute.

Esber did fancy himself something of a business guru, and one of his favorite quotes was "A computer will not make a good manager out of a bad manager. It makes a good manager better faster and a bad manager worse faster." He had something there. It had taken Tate about 5 years to build Ashton-Tate to software giant status; it would take Ed Esber only 2/2 years to put the company on the road to ruin. And Esber had a PC on his desk the entire time.

The key to Ashton-Tate's downfall lay in Esber's idiotic mishandling of the dBASE development community and the impact his actions had on the public's perception of the company. Developers were key to dBASE's early success. This was because in addition to its relational status, dBASE II was one of desktop software's first major "shelfware"

products. Despite the inevitable claims that dBASE II was "easy to use," thousands of people who bought it and tried to use it quickly put the product away on a shelf or gave it to a programmer friend. The next database they bought was usually a dirt-simple "Rolodex-in-a-box" bit of software such as PFS File or even Ashton-Tate's own Friday product.

The reason for this was simple and remains true to this day: Powerful database programs are intrinsically hard to learn and use. Properly organizing and structuring data for a task of any size and complexity requires a great deal of thought, planning, and design. As a result, DBMS products are primarily bought by people who write programs for other people.

With dBASE's head start in the market, relational capabilities, and reasonable pricing, a massive aftermarket quickly sprang up around Ratliff's creation. There were programming utilities that extended the product and made up for its deficiencies, books that taught you how to program in dBASE, training programs that provided hands-on instruction in the product, and thousands of programmers and consultants dedicated to building products and services around dBASE. This third-party market was an invaluable asset to Ashton-Tate because it served as an unpaid sales force of influencers and recommenders that helped push dBASE into new accounts and markets.

Over time, however, Esber came to resent this third-party market, and relationships began to sour between the company and the developers. One area of friction lay in the delicate balance the company had to maintain between publishers of third-party utilities for dBASE and Ashton-Tate's natural desire to enhance its product. Ashton-Tate began to develop a reputation among the development community for spotting a profitable opportunity in the dBASE utilities market and then prematurely announcing it was going to release an addition to dBASE that would incorporate the third-party product's functionality in the soon-to-be-released update. The inevitable result of these announcements was that sales of the third-party product would immediately come to a screeching halt as the market waited for the real thing to be released from Ashton-Tate. Unfortunately for several of these companies, many of Ashton-Tate's announcements proved to be hype and vaporware. These antics succeeded in destroying several third-party firms, most notably Fox & Geller, pioneers in providing add-ons for dBASE II and III. The development community began to bubble with resentment toward what it perceived as Ashton-Tate's highhanded and misleading tactics.

An even greater area of friction lay in the nature of dBASE itself. At heart, the product was simply a language and not much more. Products such as dBASE III and III+ provided a simple code-generating shell that allowed neophytes to build very basic programs, but experienced developers used the language and a variety of third-party tools to build more advanced applications. Once an application was complete, it would be distributed with a "runtime" module, a piece of the dBASE code that could run programs but didn't allow you to modify them. Ashton-Tate charged hefty fees for its runtime product. To avoid these fees, developers started building compilers, programs that would take dBASE instructions and transform them into machine code, .exe files that ran completely independent of any Ashton-Tate product. Sales of the dBASE runtime quickly disappeared, a development Esber didn't appreciate. Worse, he realized that the logical next step was the development of third-party products that combined the dBASE language and a compiler. These programs would compete directly with the company's flagship.

In an attempt to forestall the competition, Esber began to rattle legal sabers, threatening lawsuits against people who he thought were poaching the dBASE franchise. At the beginning, Esber was a bit vague about exactly what the dBASE franchise consisted of, but nonetheless his threats went over very poorly with the dBASE community, who felt it "owned" a piece of the product as well. After all, it was the community's utilities, evangelizing, and development efforts that had helped make Esber a rich man and Ashton-Tate a market leader. Just who was Esber, a man who had probably never written a line of dBASE code in his miserable MBA existence, to threaten them?

While preparing to unleash the legal dogs of war, Esber simultaneously embarked on an ill-thought-out plan of diversification. In 1985, Ashton-Tate purchased MultiMate, then a leader in the word-processing market, and in 1986, Ashton-Tate bought Decision Resources, publisher of a leading line of business graphics. Although on the face of it the acquisitions made sense, both proved to be big mistakes.

Hartford, Connecticut-based MultiMate got its start in the early 1980s when an insurance firm hired a small group of contract programmers to write a clone of the Wang word-processing system to run on their PCs. Once the project was complete, the group founded a software company to market their new Wang work-alike. For a few years the MultiMate word processor enjoyed brisk sales, particularly in corporations that already had Wang systems installed.

By the mid-1980s, however, MultiMate was already running out of steam. The company wasn't particularly well managed, and some of its marketing and advertising programs were amateurish and misfired. One of the company's funniest blunders was its "All He Could Do" ad series. Seeking to capitalize on the fact that the company sold only word-processing products, MultiMate ran a full-page four-color ad that featured Babe Ruth with the caption "All He Could Do Was Hit." Apparently no one at MultiMate realized that when the Bambino was traded from the Boston Red Sox in 1918 he was an all-star pitcher and outfielder. (Ruth's lifetime record as a pitcher: 94 wins, 46 losses, .671 pct., 2.28 ERA. After his trade to New York, he pitched infrequently.)

Of more concern was that MultiMate was a nasty and recalcitrant piece of code. From a performance standpoint, the product emulated a 1970s-era Wang word processor all too well; for example, it allowed you to see only one page of a document onscreen at a time, a holdover from an era when memory requirements imposed that limitation. The product's underlying architecture consisted of a poorly documented mass of assembly language spaghetti that over time proved increasingly difficult to extend and improve.

By 1987, MultiMate was consistently placing near the bottom in press reviews and competitive rankings, and sales began to run out of steam. After the best programming minds at Ashton-Tate spent months reviewing the situation,3 the decision was made that the only way to solve the problem was to rewrite MultiMate from the ground up (or buy a new product and call it MultiMate). Of course, the company was planning to release a new OS/2-specific word processor, and that would probably be the final answer to all the problems. In the meantime, Ashton-Tate began resorting to "stuffing the channel" to keep sales of MultiMate moving.

Channel stuffing is a time-honored tactic used by high-tech firms to mask slowing sales. It works by inducing distributors and resellers to accept large amounts of inventory in their warehouses, shipments the

3 I attended some of the meetings in order to provide marketing input into the deliberations.

I spent a great deal of time saying "You really, really need to ship an update to the product soon" but was ignored for the most part.

company then books as revenue. Incentives include crazy low prices, generous payment terms, and most important of all, agreeing to take all the inventory back if it can't be moved. At one point, inventory representing about 2 years of sales of MultiMate lay moldering in warehouses all around the country.

Decision Resources proved to be a similar headache. The ChartMaster family of products was a poorly architected mass of BASIC language spaghetti that over time proved increasingly difficult to extend and improve. By 1987, the ChartMaster product line, like MultiMate, was consistently placing near the bottom in press reviews and competitive rankings. The company did have an "ace in the hole," a minicomputer graphics program that had been ported to the PC that Decision Resources extolled during its negotiations with Ashton-Tate as "state of the art." After the purchase, a closer examination of this graphics gobbler, later released in a fit of desperation as "Draw Applause," revealed a program with an interface so obtuse and illogical that an internal marketing team evaluating the product was reduced to giggling hysterics4 as they attempted to use it.

As with MultiMate, sales began to rapidly run out of steam. After the best programming minds at Ashton-Tate spent months reviewing the situation, they decided the only way to solve the problem was to rewrite ChartMaster from the ground up (or buy a new product and call it ChartMaster). Of course, the company was planning to release a new OS/2-specific business graphics product, and that would probably be the final answer to all the problems. In the meantime, Ashton-Tate began resorting to stuffing the channel to keep sales of the product moving. Soon, inventory representing about 1 year of sales of ChartMaster lay moldering in warehouses all about the country.

The Decision Resources purchase also proved to be an open morale sore within Ashton-Tate. Many of the employees of what was now the company's new East Coast graphics and word-processing division soon realized that Ashton-Tate had bought their companies based strictly on an analysis of their cash flow contribution. It became clear to them that Ashton-Tate had little interest in investing in the MultiMate and ChartMaster products, and resentment in the company's "orphan" division flared. One expression of the bad feelings was the release of

4 I was a member of the evaluation team.

Ashton-Tate's very own underground comic entitled Graphic Violence.5 Different strips included depictions of company employees shooting down upper management, Ashton-Tate's development group as a bunch of stoned druggies, and Draw Applause as an overweight superhero munching on memory. New releases of Graphic Violence became much prized within Ashton-Tate.

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