Small Camera, Big Vision

Laurie J. Flynn | March 14, 2001

Not many Internet entrepreneurs can say their latest invention was inspired by childbirth. But Philippe Kahn, a veteran software executive whose reputation for big statements dates back to the founding days of the software industry, has often found inspiration in unusual places.

This particular lightning bolt struck three-and-a-half years ago on the day Kahn’s wife gave birth to their daughter Sophie in a Santa Cruz, Calif., hospital. On that day Kahn arrived at the maternity ward with his cell phone, a digital camera, and a laptop, hoping to instantly send out photos of the baby. The birth went smoothly, but nothing else did.

“I spent 48 hours at the maternity,” Kahn wrote recently in an e-mail from Miami, where he was spending a week racing one of his five sailboats. “People thought that I was the most exemplary father. But the reality was that I was programming a system together on my laptop to make the cell phone and the camera work together.”

After two full days of work Kahn finally was able to send his “ephotos” from the maternity ward to friends and relatives around the country and in France, where he was born. A week later, Kahn and wife Sonia Lee decided to turn his idea into “an end-to-end solution for instant wireless digital photography.” Within months after shepherding Sophie into the world, the couple gave birth to LightSurf Technologies Inc.

“If you think about traditional photography, it’s about memories,” Kahn says today. “Our baby birth pictures, our graduation, marriage, birthday, business event pictures–they are all in frames in our homes, in our wallets, and handbags.” With wireless digital photography, he says, people can now make their memories instantly available to everybody else. Move over Hallmark.

Last month the company started rolling out the various pieces of Kahn’s vision, a strategy that targets the entire food chain of wireless digital photography, down to the acceleration technology that permits memory-hungry photos to be squeezed into the cellular network.

The most visible of LightSurf’s products is a miniature digital camera no bigger than a sugar cube that can attach to an ultra-small cellular phone. Kahn says the camera can be integrated into all sorts of wireless devices including cell phones, Palm Pilots, and laptops, as well as personal computers and, eventually, cars. Someday, he claims, the technology will send digital video clips over cellular networks as well.

So far, LightSurf’s camera works only with certain Motorola cell phones, and only on the Pacific Bell network. Plus, the price is a hefty $500. But Kahn, ever the salesman, is confident other partners will come, attracted by the infrastructure LightSurf has created to support the sharing of digital images over cellular networks. Kodak, for one, has already signed on. For the past eight months, Kodak customers have been able to take their film to be processed and at the same time have their photos digitized and stored on the Internet using LightSurf technology.

LightSurf is Kahn’s third company and, by many accounts, his most promising. A Credit Suisse First Boston analyst recently described the technology as “potentially disruptive,” which on the Internet is apparently a good thing. Kahn’s first company, Borland International, was virtually eaten alive by Microsoft, and Kahn was ousted from the board of directors in 1995. But that was not until after he’d built Borland into the third-largest software seller in the world in the late 1980s and earned himself a reputation as having a keen eye for good programming. He became a frequent sight at software-industry social events, where he became known for hosting a party in a toga or entertaining crowds by playing the saxophone.

But it was his next venture that would make him the fortune to start LightSurf, in which Kahn and Lee are the only investors. Shortly after being disgraced by the Borland board, Kahn founded Starfish Software, which supplied programs for synchronizing data among handheld devices, PCs, and the Internet. In 1998 Starfish was acquired by Motorola for $253 million; Kahn remains its CEO.

These days Kahn is realistic about the prospects for growing new companies in the post-Internet Gold Rush, but says he’s confident that firms that focus on technological innovation, rather than simply selling things on the Web, have the best chances. “I think that in the last few years many have thought, for example, that catalog shopping on the Web and technology innovation are equivalent,” he says. “I think that reality has settled in.”

For a guy who could afford to spend the rest of life on the ocean, Kahn, now 49, remains undaunted by that new reality. “Retirement sounds pretty boring to me. I think that I could have retired at 35, at 40, at 45,” he says. “But how can you beat the adrenaline that comes from technology innovation and creating a new solid company from scratch?”

This article originally appeared on on March 14, 2001.