Two Heavyweights Go Toe To Toe In Vegas

Las Vegas has hosted many prizefights over the years. But none like this one: Beginning Nov. 16, America's capital of glitz will be the site of a software battle royal between Microsoft Corp. and Borland International Inc.

The backdrop: the computer industry's giant annual schmooze-in, Comdex. At stake: the market for data-base programs that software companies use to store and retrieve financial, inventory, and customer information.

Microsoft may be throwing the most extravagant punch: To toast the launch of its Access data base, Chairman William H. Gates III will toss a champagne fete for 1,000 at Caesars Palace. At the event, he will announce an initial price of $99 for Access, radical in a market where products usually sell for over $600.

Borland Chairman Philippe Kahn will counterpunch with a heavily promoted keynote speech. In his talk, Kahn is set to plug two long-awaited Borland data-base programs, due out early next year. To make sure the crowd of 135,000 expected to attend Comdex gets the message, Kahn personally will pilot a biplane over Vegas every afternoon, trailing a banner that reads, "Borland flies high."

TOO LATE. It does for now. Borland controls 65% of the $450 million market for personal computer data-base programs. Last year, in a $440 million stock swap, it acquired Ashton-Tate Corp., the market pioneer and maker of the popular dBase program. Already successful with its Paradox data base, Borland's acquisition seemed to guarantee it an unbreakable lock on the third-largest PC software category.

Then came damaging new-product delays. Originally scheduled for release earlier this year, the important Windows versions of both dBase and Paradox were postponed, helping to drive Borland stock down to around 31, a long way from its all-time high of 86 in January. Says Shearson Lehman Brothers Inc. analyst David B. Readerman: "The longer Borland waits, the more vulnerable they are."

Indeed, the delays gave Microsoft an unforeseen opening. In March, it snapped up Fox Software Inc., maker of FoxPro, a dBase-compatible program that holds a respectable 12% share of the market. At Comdex, Gates is expected to promise FoxPro for Windows by Christmas, beating out the new dBase.

POULTRY VALUE? But the real show-stealer will be Microsoft's first homegrown data base, Access. Nearly three years in the making, its key features are an ability to tap into data stored on big computers and a friendly design amenable to nonprogrammers. "Access is the prettiest one," says Boston data-base guru Adam Green, who is testing all four new programs.

Looks aren't everything, counters Borland Vice-President Robert H. Dickerson, who says buyers care most about performance. Access' snazzy look "is like lipstick on a chicken," he says. "All the makeup in the world won't help." Gates retorts: "It's wonderful to have your competition underestimate you."

Many analysts are betting that the battle between Borland and Microsoft will expand the market. Smaller players, such as Alpha Software, Approach Software, and Computer Associates, may be hurt most by the bruising battle, they say. Consultant Green, though, is putting his money on Microsoft, predicting it could snare share from Borland. Once the dust settles, the long-lasting effects of this software bout will likely be low, low data-base prices. That means consumers will take home the purse.

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