Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/06/13/myth_legend_part2/

'Microsoft was caught stealing secrets from Borland'

Reader, I was there

By Mark Whitehorn

Posted in Developer, 13th June 2006 12:17 GMT

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.

Way, way back in 1992 I was at that conference in Palm Springs. One evening, purely by chance, I happened to meet a very amiable guy called Bill Marklyn. It turned out that he worked for Microsoft. He didn't, at that point, look like a spy. He didn't have a large magnifying glass, nor a miniature camera; at least, as far as I could see. But then, those miniature cameras are, by definition, easy to conceal so perhaps he had it hidden under the large black cloak he was using to conceal his face. (No. Let's not start another myth. That was a joke; he was not wearing a black cloak).

Bill and I happened to get along well together; in fact it turned out to be the start of a long friendship, we still write books together. But we didn't know that at the time. So we chatted about databases and database engines from about 7:00PM until about 1:00AM the next morning. (Look, we were far from home, at a database conference. What do you expect us to do? Get drunk and argue about baseball?) During the evening we met up with two other guys from Microsoft: Tod Nielsen and Adam Bosworth. Adam had worked for Borland in the past developing Reflex; an excellent flat-file database system; and guess who was appointed as CEO and president of Borland in November 2005? None other than Tod Nielson...

During the day Borland announced that the labs would be open late to allow all the conference delegates the opportunity to try out the software. Early in the evening the labs had been packed with delegates, so we tried again later on in the evening. Most of the conference delegates were, by that stage, getting drunk and arguing about baseball so the room was empty. We tried out the software which was, most certainly not secret stuff; this was in a completely open area.

Despite all of that, after a couple of minutes Adam said something like "I'm a little uncomfortable sitting here as a Microsoft employee with no-one watching us. What if someone thinks we are trying to steal the software?"

He really did say that. I'm sorry if it sounds unlikely but he did. The rest of us laughed and I said I'd watch them. But he insisted on going out and finding someone. He returned with a couple of Borland developers he knew from his time at the company. We all chatted for a while as developers do - not about marketing and company politics, but about coding and languages and data structures. It was a very pleasant evening. Eventually the Borland guys closed up the lab and we all drifted off. No one even hinted at impropriety. I saw no cameras. Despite what Sidnam said later, I saw no notebooks. There was no drama.

I trust developers (Borland and/or Microsoft) but my guess is that one of the Borland guys just happened to mention that he had come across the Microsoft people in the lab. At some point, as the story was passed around, a non-developer saw a golden opportunity.

A couple of mornings later I entered the Press room to find an impromptu UK press meeting in full swing. A Borland spokeswoman was recounting the dramatic story of how three Microsoft people had been caught stealing secrets. I thought it was a great story until I realised that she was talking about the same three guys and the same evening.

Now, I'm a journalist. I like a good story as well as the next news hound. But I do like my articles to contain at least an element of truth. My editors are very picky on this point and tend to insist. I pointed out to the spokeswoman that, completely inadvertently, these guys had acquired a completely independent witness. I said that they were demonstrably innocent. My brothers in the press fraternity also like their articles to be based on planet Earth whenever possible and so the story never appeared in the UK. What I didn't realise at the time was that someone (the same spokeswoman?) simply repeated it to the US press which published the story.

So, it is no longer a great mythtery how some of these myths are born; but I think it is now time to put this one firmly to sleep. ®