Silicon Samurai: The Oracle

THE WORLD JUST doesn't have many grudge matches anymore: the U.S. and Russia are buddy-buddy and even Frank Gifford and Kathie Lee are working things out. Thank God, then, that Larry Ellison still has Bill Gates. Think Hatfields and McCoys in a really bad mood.

The 52-year-old Ellison, you see, is only America's second richest software tycoon ($8 billion or so, not counting supermarket coupons), and his northern California empire, Oracle, takes a back seat to Microsoft in market value. Charming and outrageous, part P. T. Barnum and part Attila the Hun, Ellison has built the most successful high-tech company almost nobody's heard of. Oracle makes database-management software for corporations - we'd need some geek to actually explain what that is, but it has something to do with handling billing, inventory, banking and insurance for the planet's commercial infrastructure. (More expensive than Windows 95 - companies can spend millions - and takes even longer to install.) It's a tidy business that Oracle dominates. But what Ellison really wants is control of the next generation of the Information Age.

PCs, he says, are overly expensive, overly complicated dinosaurs that most people will never own. His solution: easy-to-use network computers. NCs will have just enough features (like a screen and modem) to let folks onto the Internet, where most information is free. Price tag: under $500. Oracle wants to be the software inside every one of those boxes. If Ellison is right about the NC, it could spell the end of Microsoft hegemony. If not, he warns, ""it will be the Age of Bill. We had an Age of Napoleon, now we'll have Bill.'' Such is his critique of postindustrial America.

In many ways, Ellison is a more interesting character than Gates, not to mention better-looking. Besides the three ex-wives, he races his own yacht, studies samurai culture and weaponry, and dresses better than anybody else in Silicon Valley; unlike the rest of the propeller heads, he can actually spell ""cuff links.'' And he just happens to be putting up a classier house than Bill. His $40 million place, designed by a Zen priest and complete with moon pavilion, ""should be the most authentic Japanese structure outside Japan.'' It's a ""Balance of Elements,'' explains Ellison's site plan. ""Air, Earth, Time, Water and Wood.'' How could he leave out the Archery Range? Even more than the ginkgos and bonsai pines, the centerpiece of his 23 acres is a huge man-made pond of purified drinking water filled with rare Japanese carp. One day Ellison will get to jump into that pond from the deck of the master suite and swim across to the spa. ""Smart'' sensors will inform the gym who's coming, what music to play and the proper lighting. Give Ellison some credit: if you're not going to give the money all away, spend it in style.

Whether it's merely for public consumption or part of his constitution, Ellison can barely finish a paragraph without some reference to the evil empire in Redmond, Wash. ""Bill Gates wants people to think he's Edison, when he's really Rockefeller,'' Ellison says. ""Though I wouldn't mind being Rockefeller either. But referring to Gates as the smartest man in America isn't right. I'm not the fourth smartest man in America. Wealth isn't the same thing as intelligence.'' Such fierceness probably came to Ellison a long time ago. When he was 10 and many times thereafter, his father berated him for not respecting authority. ""You'll never amount to anything,'' Larry was told. Dad was wrong.