We Hate You, We Really,
Really Hate You:
Ed Esber and Ashton-Tate
In 1987, while working at MicroPro as WordStar product manager, I was assigned to participate in one of high tech’s hoariest rituals: a press tour. A press tour consists of arranging for members of your senior management team to meet with key members of the fourth estate and analysts who write about and cover your market. The hope is that once you’ve established a backslapping, hail-fellow-well-met relationship with an editor from PC Magazine or a guru from Gartner they’ll be more inclined to write nice things about your company and its products. Sometimes it works out that way. The quid pro quo driving the tour is that in return for putting up with you disturbing their day, you’ll provide fresh news for the press and buy research from the analysts. Sometimes it works out that way as well.
Tour personnel usually consist of at least one member of upper management, one member of middle management capable of giving a comprehensive product demonstration (informally, this person is referred to as “the demo dolly”), and a PR person. For this tour, upper management was represented by Leon Williams, then president of MicroPro, I appeared in the role of the demo dolly, and rounding out the group was a sad little PR type who confessed at the end of our trip that she really didn’t like working with members of the press. Once you’ve been on one or two press tours, most people regard them with the same affection as a root canal. Most tours consist of a trip to New York, Boston, and San Francisco, the three major hubs for high-tech media and analysis.
Our itinerary included a side trip to Austin, Texas, to meet Jim Seymour, long-time editor and columnist for the Ziff publishing empire. On the day of our appointed meeting, we trekked out to Seymour’s house in the Austin hills, where I dutifully demonstrated the latest, greatest version of WordStar 5.0, the one that couldn’t print. Luckily for me, Seymour, engrossed by the Macintosh (as were most members of the press at the time), paid only cursory attention to the demo and instead insisted on demoing his latest Mac toys for us. Once everyone was done showing off, we settled down for the obligatory period of chitchat before we headed off to the airport and our next stop in the never-ending tour.
Heart of Darkness
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 dead.” They wanted his head on a stake