About life in the last third

The First 386 Notebook

As I wrote earlier, there were a number of sections in my book, The Flight of a Wild Duck, that I removed because they broke the flow. Eventually, they will be all available on the book’s website, http://www.wildduckflight.com.

After moving from Intel’s Oregon facilities to the closest thing the company had to a headquarters in Santa Clara CA, I learned of an exciting project started by a very talented, unusual man named Howard “Binx” Selby. As he was generally known, Binx had created a very successful company building word processors, NBI, in 1973. It went public in 1979, and Binx became wealthy as a result. No longer involved with NBI when I first met him, Binx was an eccentric but very talented inventor. He had created what I believe was the first proper notebook PC. Unlike portables that time, it fit inside an attachĂ© case and used a 32-bit 386. Binx’s notebook did not have a battery because the power management needed to power a computer of this size with a battery only came with the 486. But its small size and lightweight meant it could easily be carried around and plugged in for use whenever and wherever. It had a built-in hard drive, but the floppy drive was an external device that would be plugged in when needed. (The computer did not require the floppy to run the computer.)

I will never forget my first meeting with Binx at his home in Boulder, Colorado. While many tech companies start in a garage, his companies began in his airplane hanger. Besides the notebook project, Binx was starting many other companies based on various things he had invented. The first was a microprocessor-based espresso machine. He believed that the espresso served in the United States was inferior to espresso in Italy because those serving espresso in the United States didn’t drink espresso. So he had traveled all over Italy to learn the secrets of making espresso. This venture became successful as he sold his technology to a significant supplier of restaurant equipment. As we enjoyed the espresso he served us, Binx explained that another company he had just started was recycling sewage water for use in his community. We all paused before continuing to drink the espresso.

I negotiated a convertible note that gave Intel various options, including the right to acquire his notebook technology. I worked with Intel’s Systems Group to develop a plan to have Intel produce motherboards based on Binx’s design for sale directly to computer manufacturers. My boss and head of the Systems Group, Les Vadasz, agreed to my plan. ThenI reviewed with Andy Grove. He was positive, and I was invited to present the project to the Intel board. Then once again and abruptly, Andy once changed his mind. No one, he said, would buy a notebook without an internal floppy drive. Other companies would later prove that wrong, but it was hard to argue with him then. We had no way to know. There was no example in the market. Without Andy’s support, the Intel Board rejected my proposal. I still think this was an incredibly dumb decision. Implementing the strategy, I outlined would have accelerated the development of notebook computers and put Intel even further up on the food chain.  

Angry at Andy but still believing in the product, I went to Rich Bader, the co-founder of PCEO (Personal Computer Enhancement Operation), the most successful of several Internal startups that Les Vadasz had sponsored. I asked if he could help me. PCEO was selling products that enhanced personal computers, such as math coprocessors and fax add-in boards. They sold directly into retail channels. Rich understood the PC market well, and he, like me, was a cooperate trouble maker and fearless. So I was looking for a co-conspirator. My objective was to go around Intel by getting major Asian PC manufacturers to adopt the notebook form factor I had advocated to the Intel board members. I was convinced that this form factor would have great appeal to Asian PC manufacturers who were by in large also in the consumer market. Richard agreed to help me. So off we went to Asia and met with the leading PC companies in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. I intended to show them the working prototype of the 386 notebook that Binx had created and see if they could develop such a product. I hoped they would work with Binx, and that way, not only would the notebook come to market, but Intel would make a significant financial return from our investment in Binx’s company. 

On this trip, Rich introduced me to Masayoshi (Masa) Son, who later became the leading high tech investor in Japan (through Softbank Group) and a multi-billionaire. But in those days, Masa was the publisher of the Japanese version of several successful American computer magazines. He also owned many computer retail stores, so he would place articles featuring products that were only available at his stores. He was brilliant and very friendly.

While still a student at UC Berkeley, at 19, Son had created an electronic translator that he sold to Sharp Corporation for $1.7 million. He then made another $1.5 million by importing used video game machines from Japan on credit and installing them in dormitories and restaurants.

In preparation for my trip to Asia, I had to take some cultural lessons. For Japan, I learned how to bow, present my business card with two hands, sit at the table, and, most importantly, never show the bottom of my shoes. My instructor told me not to open my hotel door for Korea if someone knocked because it might be a prostitute sent by one of the companies we were about to see. In Taiwan, I learned that the negotiating team on the other side of the table might be taking stimulants so they could keep going and wear me out.

Amongst the companies we met, was Panasonic, NEC, and Sanyo. By the is time, Intel was a very well-respected company in Japan. Given my position at Intel, I was able to meet with the top executives of these companies. My meeting with the CEO of NEC is something I will never forget. His office was enormous and full of what must have been costly art. We sat on chairs at one end of his office. After exchanging niceties, a young woman in a kimono brought us tea. Maybe this is now just my imagination, but she came to us walking on her knees. After serving us the tea, she left the room again on her knees but backward, so she was facing us. I could not believe it. The meeting with the CEO was a formality (to say the least). Then we meet with a business team. It was at that meeting where I would take out the 386 notebook and show them. I would see a glimpse of recognition.  

I had similar meetings with the other companies in Japan, although the one with NEC was the only one where a woman in a kimono served me tea.  

It was amazing to be back in Japan, by the way. The last time I had been, there was 1963 when I was a steward on The President Cleveland, a cruise ship. Now it was 25 years later, and the Japan that I had known as a developing nation had been transformed into an industrial powerhouse. Japan is still one of my favorite countries.  

In Korea, we meet with Samsung, a very impressive company even then but nothing like the Samsun of today. But then again, the Korea of 1988 was nothing like the Korea of today. In those days, it wasn’t easy to imagine that a Korean company like Samsung could challenge a Japanese company like Panasonic, but that is what happened.  

Next, we went to Taiwan and met with Acer. They were very interested in the 386 notebook and had very long discussions. Now, I can’t imagine what we discussed for such a long period.

Eventually, we returned to the USA. Unfortunately, nothing came out of the discussions in Asia, although seeing the sleek notebook 386 may have encouraged some of these companies to move ahead with notebook design. However, it was probably not until the 486 and the early 2000s that we saw computers introduced with the elegant form factor of Binx’s model.

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