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Star power has its advantages in world of IT

By Don Tennant
July 17, 2000 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - When Oracle CEO Larry Ellison was looking for somebody to head his latest "it's-not-a-PC" venture, the person who got the call was Gina Smith, a technology journalist with a high-profile, on-camera ABC News gig on her resume. It was an interesting choice.

Maybe Ellison was moved by the vastness of an untapped resource. According to President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisors, women hold only 8% of the nation's top information technology jobs.

More likely, Ellison was considering his own experience and recognizing that star power is what it takes to capture and hold the attention of the Internet Generation.

In either case, Smith has her work cut out for her. As CEO of The New Internet Computer Co., her first order of business is to ceremoniously roll her eyes every time someone suggests that the $199 New Internet Computer is the reincarnation of Ellison's first hard-diskless bad idea.

But in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

I know, because Smith told me so recently during a phone chat. For one thing, unlike the original network computer, this computer doesn't even have to be connected to a server, since all the software it needs to get you onto the Internet (including a version of Linux that some Oracle techie tweaked to make Netscape Navigator run the way it's supposed to, Smith says) comes on a CD-ROM.

Plus, this one has a friendly sounding, pronounceable, marketable acronym (NIC - as in New Internet Computer) rather than the not-nearly-as-personable NC. (It struck me that the world might be a different place today if only Ellison had had the foresight back then to pronounce NC as "Nancy.")

So even though Smith had trashed the NC back in her journalism days, Ellison called her last fall and said he had something very important to talk to her about. Smith said she hadn't heard from Ellison in about three years and wasn't sure whether it was one of her columns or an appearance on Oprah that prompted the call.

When he hit her with the idea of running his new company, Smith said she "fell off the chair" but eventually agreed to do it. What he was looking for, she said, was somebody who could explain the NIC and get people excited about it. Never mind that Smith had virtually no management experience and had never done anything of the sort before.

To her credit, Smith makes no bones about the fact that she's nothing more than a figurehead. She said she hired the best manager she ever had - a guy named David Street, who was her boss at a hard-disk company she worked at right out of college in 1985 - and made him chief operating officer. (It sounds a little humiliating to me, but I doubt Dave had a better offer on the horizon.) So while he takes care of the pesky business of actually managing the company, Smith is free to make personal appearances and do the celebrity CEO thing, which Wall Street just loves.

Grabbing Smith was a brilliant move on Ellison's part. Aside from being smart and articulate, Smith has a great stage presence. Food for thought for some of those sluggish companies like Compaq, which, if it had any sense, would bump the pallid Michael Capellas down to chief operating officer and get Diane Sawyer on the phone. After all, when's the last time you saw Mike on Oprah?

Don Tennant is Computerworld's assistant news editor. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com.

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