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'Microsoft was caught stealing secrets from Borland'

Reader, I was there

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Database Myths and Legends "Microsoft was caught stealing secrets from Borland.".

Or was it? Of course, this all happened way, way back in 1992; but then myths are supposed to be old; that’s the whole point. And this one just won't lie down and die.

Every so often someone tells me that, before Access was released, somewhere in a secret desert location, some Microsoft developers were caught stealing Borland’s database code. Sometimes I’m told that the code was later incorporated into Access. In another variant the Microsoft guys were arrested and Bill Gates himself had to fly down to get them out of jail.

You can find references to various versions of this story on the web. See, for example, here:

"In 1993, Borland, the leader in PC databases, hired a private detective to watch for spies at its Palm Desert, Calif., developers conference. It took the unusual action after a product manager for Microsoft Access, a rival database, was discovered snooping around at the event and allegedly trying to access a PC loaded with secret Borland plans in an empty conference room, according to former Borland employees. Asked about the incident at the time, the product manager, Tod Nielsen, said the incident was an innocent misunderstanding."

(The date was actually 1992, not 1993 as this article suggests. The 1993 Borland conference was held in San Diego). Remember that at that time, Borland owned a very successful PC database system and Microsoft didn’t even have a product.

It sounds highly unlikely but, rather unnervingly for a myth, there is contemporary documentation to support it. On June 14th 1992 Gina Smith, billed as "one of the best-known science and technology journalists in America today", published a story in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner headed "Operation Desert Sneak", and sub-headed "Microsoft infiltrates database rival Borland’s retreat in Palm Desert". Her article reports that Borland held a database conference in Palm Desert (May 31st. to June 6th.) and that three Microsoft employees had registered for the conference.

"The real point of contention is an incident that occurred late one night in a Borland makeshift lab that was supposed to be closed for the night. According to Borland an official walked in and found the three registered employees [from Microsoft] in front of PCs. Borland insiders claim that the three were trying to copy on paper details of new computer screens for an unannounced product Borland was showing customers."

A Microsoft spokesperson is then quoted in the article, defending the actions of the employees. "They were making notes, that's what people do at conferences", said Microsoft’s Sidnam. "The room wasn’t locked and there wasn’t anyone there. One Microsoft guy even went out looking for a Borland official because they didn’t think they should be unsupervised."

OK, so you now have the contemporary evidence (which is far more than most people who repeat the myth have in their possession). What do you believe? Doesn’t that Microsoft defence sound more like an admission of guilt? They were clearly in the room and, surrounded by Borland’s secrets they decided to go out and look for a Borland person to watch them. Yeah, that sounds plausible.

Well, this myth has lasted long enough. The public has a right to know the truth about what really happened that fateful night in 1992. But who is telling the truth? How can I be sure that I can ever get to the truth after all this time? Simple. I was in the room at the time.

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