The meeting with Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, took place during a breakfast meeting with the foreign press I’d helped set up in the Hotel Okura in Tokyo. I was just getting started as a full-time tech writer and was putting out a weekly column called Computer Corner for the Japan Times. This must have been in the late 1980s.
Previously, Intel and other U.S. chip companies had lost the DRAM memory market to the Japanese, and Grove was making damn sure Intel wasn’t going to lose its dominance in the CPU market where its 8086/88 series was the central processor of choice for IBM PCs and its many clones.
So when NEC reverse-engineered the Intel chips with its V-series of processors aiming to grab some of this lucrative market, Intel was quick to raise the issue that the microcode NEC was using to drive the chips was a copy of its copyrighted code. NEC sued Intel declaring the copyright invalid. After a series of complicated suits and countersuits, the court sided with Intel.
At about the same time Unix workstations were garnering headlines in the industry press, especially when Sun Microsystems formed an alliance with AT&T. These workstations provided more power and better graphics than the puny PCs of the time, and they were the computer of choice for engineers everywhere. Consequently, they were gobbling up the high-end of the desktop computer market and the budding server market, as well as catching the fancy of power users.
So when Grove invited questions from the ten or so journalist around the breakfast table at the Okura, I was quick to get in first and ask, “What are you doing to counter the growing competition from Unix?”
Grove barely looked at me when he replied, saying, “Unix isn’t a competitor.” He didn’t even bother elaborating, so firm was his dismissal of the question, and it was clear he was not going to entertain a follow-up on the subject. My colleagues from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LA Times laughed—not because they thought my question silly, but rather at the way Grove hadn’t taken it seriously. Or so it seemed.
I retired flummoxed and red-faced into the shadows unable to compute what had just taken place, and I let the big boys of journalism take over the questioning.
In one important aspect, Grove was right, of course. PCs with Intel Inside were selling in the millions, while high-priced workstations from the likes of Sun, IBM and Hewlett-Packard were doing well if they sold 30,000 units annually.
Yet my question was hardly naïve, and, of course, only-the-paranoid-survive Grove knew that better than most. But he was hardly going to help bolster the growing publicity being showered on Unix workstation manufacturers by deigning to call them competitors before America’s elite press.
A few years later, of course, Intel and Hewlett-Packard got together to develop the 64-bit Itanium microprocessor that failed to live up to its high-end billing. Intel did better with its Xeon processor, a more powerful version of its x86 chip, which first debuted in 1998 —just in time to exploit the boom in server growth with the rise of the World Wide Web in the mid-90s. Now how important is that market?!
It was only then that I understood why Grove had been so dismissive of my question. That meeting was the one time I got a face-to-face with Andy Grove, who passed away on March 21. But from the perspective of a budding tech writer, once was enough.
This first appeared on my Forbes blog site: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jboyd