To paraphrase the old movie line, Borland could have been a contender. But last week’s sale agreement to Micro Focus will bring to a new pass the strange and often tortured history of this scion on Silicon Valley.
In the early 1990s, Borland was at its zenith as the company that was pestering Lotus and Ashton-Tate though its lower-cost Quattro Pro spreadsheet and Paradox database. In 1992 then then sent enterprise software into shock by buying Ashton-Tate for about $440m.
Borland was hugely popular with developers too with a strong-selling tools line, and beloved of enthusiasts because of its terrific Sidekick DOS pop-up personal organiser program. It seemed that if anybody were to shake Microsoft, it would be this audacious company led by fast-talking software guru and musician Philippe Kahn. However, as it has proven for many other companies, taking on Microsoft proved to be a suicide mission and, in particular, the venture to create an application prodicutivity suite to compete with Microsoft Office was either brave or foolhardy.
When Kahn left the CEO seat, Borland drifted. It had some success with the Delphi database development tool but an agreement to merge with Corel broke down, a name change to Inprise didn’t take root and then the application development space was commodiitised from under its feet. All this forced Borland into becoming a maker of software to control the development process. The company that once wanted it all had been rediced to niche player.
The deal makes sense for Micro Focus, the British company that doesn’t want you to think about it as Cobol firm but rather a broader maker of development tools for application modernisation and beyond. But $75m seems a trival sum for what is still a big brand in client/server software history. With Sun Microsystems also selling out, Lotus long gone to IBM and Novell a pale shadow of its early 1990s incarnation, the old guard of client/server is disappearing fast.