In Search of Computing's Holy Grail : Technology: Kaleida Labs, an Apple-IBM joint venture, is searching for ways to develop multimedia technologies. To lead the quest, they've chosen Nat Goldhaber.


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.

That fits more comfortably with the goals of his corporate masters than the lofty rhetoric about changing the world. Obviously, IBM and Apple intend to make money on Kaleida, part of a broad collaboration the companies launched last year. And they remain deeply ambivalent about moving beyond the proven market for business computers and into the consumer world, where they'd need to sell many millions of inexpensive products rather than hundreds of thousands of costly ones.

No matter what the motives, Kaleida is a tricky business proposition. For starters, it's an odd kind of hybrid, the child of two powerful parents that must somehow operate with the mentality of a start-up company. The company employs about 40 people, roughly half from Apple and the remainder from IBM and other companies. One of Goldhaber's big challenge will be to inspire the troops and create a sense of identity separate from the parents.

And Kaleida won't be selling conventional products. The company wants to develop computer software that will make it easy to create multimedia programs that work on many different computer and consumer electronics devices. The immediate objectives are to develop a so-called scripting language and to persuade a range of hardware and software companies to adopt it--and pay Kaleida licensing fees.

No one disputes that the company is focused on an important problem. Multimedia has become something of a Holy Grail in the computer business, with a variety of companies searching in vain for the mix of technologies that will make it attractive to a mass market.

Philips, for example, is pushing Compact Disc-Interactive, a $700 machine that plugs into a television set and plays a range of entertainment and education programs, all operated by a remote control rather than a keyboard. Tandy recently came out with a similar machine.

Computer makers have been adding accessories such as CD-ROM drives (a special type of compact disc player) to give their machines multimedia capabilities. The first product to use Kaleida software, due out in mid-1993, will be a multimedia disc player produced by Toshiba Corp. as part of a joint venture with Apple.

And there's interactive television, in which a special computer and newly configured cable or broadcast TV networks enable couch potatoes to "talk" to their TVs. People would be able to participate in game shows, order groceries and look through libraries of everything from movies to newspaper articles. IBM plans to spend at least $100 million developing interactive TV, probably working with cable TV operators.

But a major problem is that none of these various multimedia systems share a common technical approach. So a program developed for one machine will not work on the others, and none of the systems are operated in the same way.

Kaleida hopes its software will bridge these gaps and help the entire industry grow.

"One of the big hopes is that they can somehow come up with some standards," says Denise Caruso, editor of the newsletter Digital Media.

Yet many companies that will have to support Kaleida if it's to become a standard need a lot of convincing. Kaleida was slow to get off the ground--it was originally announced in July, 1991, but didn't begin operating until this summer.

"It's pretty hard to get excited about someone saying they're going to do something," says Bob Stein, co-founder of Voyager Co., a multimedia software company in Santa Monica. "I focus on machines that are in the market."

Further, Apple and IBM are not neutral parties in the fiercely competitive computer industry. PC software leader Microsoft Corp., for one, would appear to have little incentive to support an IBM/Apple project.

Rob Glaser, head of multimedia at Microsoft, compared Kaleida's proposed software language to Esperanto: a language that tries to appeal to everyone and ends up being spoken by no one.

"Two big companies getting together to solve important problems doesn't mean anything," he added. "The proof will be in the pudding."

Even Stewart Alsop, editor of the trade publication Infoworld and a friend of Goldhaber's, is skeptical of the concept. And many question whether IBM and Apple will give the venture enough free rein to pursue its goals.

Goldhaber's committment to these goals played an important role in his selection. In fact, that commitment played an important role in his selection to the job: In an unusual arrangement, he worked for months as a volunteer on the project, helping to define the venture and then waiting while Apple and IBM searched for a chief executive.

"It was a high-risk thing for him to do, and I sort of liked that," says David Nagel, the Apple executive who headed the Kaleida project. "He was willing to put himself on the line. Unless you have a lot of self-confidence, you can hurt yourself more than help yourself by doing something like that." He was something of a surprise choice for the job because, as Alsop puts it, "he dresses wrong and tells people what he thinks."

Goldhaber wasn't always so sure of the value of computers. Though his father, a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, saw the computer revolution coming and urged his son to seize the opportunity, Goldhaber believed that computer science was a dull, overly cerebral exercise.

In fact, like many Berkeley students of the 1960s, he wasn't terribly interested in formal studies of any sort. Instead, he became heavily involved in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's transcendental meditation movement, launching the Berkeley TM center and later playing a key role in founding the Maharishi International University in Fairfield, Iowa.

"Everything I've learned about business I learned working for the Maharishi," he says, adding that he continues to practice TM. "I was 19, and I was running an organization (the Berkeley TM center) that was really very big. I had to understand everything from accounting to facilities management."

The TM movement also turned out to be a good source of business connections. In 1978, after returning to Berkeley for graduate school, he got a call from William Scranton III, whom he had met through TM.

Scranton was running for lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, and Goldhaber agreed to help with the campaign. When Scranton was elected, he hired Goldhaber as his special assistant.

His political career was eventful--he was interim director of the state energy agency at the time of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident--but brief. Concluding that politics was "the art of arguing with your own side," he began to look for something else to do. With Edward Bigelow, a friend from state government who was an early personal computer enthusiast, he decided to start a computer company.

Goldhaber and Bigelow decided there was an opportunity in building networks that would allow personal computers to talk with one another. Their initial product, which connected machines that used an early software system called CP/M, died out quickly. However, a subsequent product for Apple Macintoshes and Sun workstations was a big hit.

And Goldhaber had an important insight about computer networks that stemmed in part from his need to find a moral justification for his work.

"When I first started (in computers), I found it to be really trivial, not from an ease standpoint but from a fundamental philosophical standpoint," he says. "I really felt as if in the first time in my adult life, I was doing something that had no lasting importance at all, it was just to make money. And I really didn't like it.

"But you know," he adds with a self-deprecating chuckle, "cognitive dissonance is a terrible thing to waste. So I figured out why it was important." His conclusion was that the world needed decentralized, "democratic" networks that took control out of the hands of computer managers and supported the kind of informal personal contacts that lie at the heart of all work environments.

He doesn't pretend that this was an entirely satisfactory justification, but it did salve a certain psychic need. "I found a cause, which gave me a better feeling about what I was doing," he says. "I like to have a mission."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World