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A Few Questions for Philippe Kahn, CEO of LightSurf Technologies

A Few Questions for Philippe Kahn, CEO of LightSurf Technologies

In a sea of seemingly incompatible MMS strategies, divergent mobile operator schemes, and innumerable advertising campaigns aimed at would-be U.S. camera phone users, Philippe Kahn navigates enviably.

Philippe Kahn is the CEO of LightSurf Technologies, his third successful startup in as many tries (and the second founded with his wife Sonia Lee). Well known for his pioneering leadership at Borland, which resulted in the mass adoption of many of the company's personal productivity software and development tools, he is becoming equally well-thought-of for his vision. Following his tenure at Borland, he launched Starfish Software and arrived early to market with a global synchronization platform during the mid '90s, just as the mobility sector began to mature.

Soon after Motorola's acquisition of privately held Starfish in 1998, he set a course for transcoding mobile content - which is where you'll find him today - at the helm of LightSurf Technologies in Santa Cruz, CA, leading a small team into productive relationships with industry giants such as Sprint PCS, mmO2, Sanyo, Samsung, Kodak, and Motorola, and perhaps clarifying the true value of picture messaging and premium content delivery.

Sprint's highly publicized Picture Mail application on its PCS Vision plan is powered by the LightSurf Instant Imaging Platform, which allows users a seamless experience as they capture, send, and receive images over multiple wired and wireless networks. The recent release of the LightSurf 5 platform enables even greater options for mobile operators and content owners to create a place for themselves in the emerging MMS and mobile content marketplace.

Kahn gets his companies there early. And often. So I tried to see if there was a method to his timing:

WBT: SideKick, Dashboard, dBASE, Paradox, and Quattro Pro were some of Borland's best-known business applications. I imagine that there was a considerable amount of time spent improving the way that information was presented to the user (on 13" and 14" monitors). Are there any parallels that you can draw from those days that aid in the development of mobile phone applications (on much smaller displays)?
Kahn: At LightSurf we focus on what we call "radical simplicity." That's because picture phones, for example, are used by everyone and shouldn't need an instruction manual, and yet are very powerful tools. In the '80s and early '90s in the PC industry we focused a lot on usability; and in some ways, today we build on what we learned then.

WBT: Your previous company, Starfish Software, led a pioneering effort to bring synchronization capabilities to mobile devices. With all of the buzz surrounding personal area networks (PANs) and technologies like ultrawideband, how do you envision devices sharing information in five years?
Kahn: The founding vision at Starfish was "global integration and synchronization of wireless and wireline devices." This is a vision that applies today and will still make sense five years from now. I have high hopes that by then this won't be just a good vision, but an everyday reality.

WBT: In retrospect, your timing at Starfish was almost perfect; developing a product that matured just as the market was ready to embrace it (leading to Motorola's acquisition of the company). Timing is everything. How much of it is luck and how much of it is understanding the needs of customers and end users?
Kahn: My feeling is that luck is always very important in business as it is in all things in life. I have been very lucky three times, and I am most thankful and proud to have brought LightSurf, Starfish, and Borland to success. In some ways I feel that most of us make some of our own luck. The famous Louis Pasteur used to say: "It's strange how the harder I work, the luckier I get!"

WBT: What role did Kodak play in shaping LightSurf's business plan?
Kahn: We started LightSurf in 1997 when our daughter Sophie was born, and when Motorola was in the process of acquiring Starfish. I was at the maternity ward with my cellphone, my laptop, and a digital camera. I tried to get those three devices to work together so that I could send live picture messages of Sophie's birth to all our friends and family around the world. It took me quite a while to get it all to work, but in the end it did and I started sending those real-time picture messages that people could receive instantly. Well, after five of the recipients asked whether I could set them up with a similar system, we thought about it and suddenly realized that luck had smiled upon us and that here was the founding vision for our next company: "Instant Memories." Later, in 2000, we got involved with Kodak. I personally always had the greatest respect for the work that George Eastman did by founding Kodak, making photography truly a consumer phenomenon. It was a great honor to be able to partner with Kodak, a company that has changed how most of us remember events in and before our lives.

WBT: You must feel that LightSurf is in a pretty good position now, especially with advertising dollars and incentives that U.S. mobile operators are putting behind their camera phone and picture messaging strategies. Will every mobile phone have an integrated camera in the near future?
Kahn: I personally believe that over 50% of the handsets sold in the next 24 months will have an embedded camera. The new picture phones are small, have great battery life, are priced right, and come with a built-in digital camera. A picture is worth many times more than a thousand words, and phones are about communications, so the camera and the phone are naturally symbiotic.

WBT: Picture Mail on the Sprint PCS Vision service is sure to get a boost from their $99 promotion featuring the Sanyo 8100 camera phone. How did LightSurf's relationship with Sprint PCS begin?
Kahn: In the early days we at LightSurf approached many carriers and discussed our vision. Most listened, nodded their heads, and then never called us back. By contrast, at Sprint, we found a team of exceptionally talented individuals who aligned themselves with our vision and became our partners. We worked in the background for months to build the nucleus of Sprint's PCS Vision. Today Sprint PCS Vision is the most advanced multimedia system in the world, bar none. The Sprint team is doing an outstanding job of establishing themselves as the global leader for picture messaging, and MMS in general.

WBT: Team Pegasus, your sailing venture, has been recognized as a world class team. From the Vanderbilt era, through Ted Turner and Larry Ellison, notable "captains of industry" have competed in the capital-intensive game of yacht racing while simultaneously leading their companies. Are you attracted to sailing for similar reasons?
Kahn: Actually, I don't compete in those games. My sailing is mostly in very small boats called Finns that are raced in the Olympic Games, measure 15 feet long, and are single-handed boats. We also sail Melges 24s, which are crewed boats that are 24 feet long, and that you can trailer behind your car. We do race the big Pegasus across the Pacific and have been very successful in doing so, but that is a once-a-year event. I stay away from the big glamorous yacht racing. In fact I don't call them yachts; to me they are sailboats that are fun as well as very challenging.

More Stories By Tim Bresien

Tim Bresien is WBT's VC editor, the principal consultant with infraStar, Inc., and a freelance writer covering investments in the wireless communications sector. He is a former research analyst with the telecommunications consulting firm of Bond & Pecaro, Inc., Washington, DC, and a cofounder of the Telecom Investor Forum, held annually at SUPERCOMM.

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