Henry Nicholas, president and CEO of Broadcom, doesn't much care whether it's cable modems, DSL phone lines or wireless links that deliver the high-speed, always-on Internet future. As long as broadband arrives with the oomph that analysts expect -- some 25 million subscribers by 2003 -- Nicholas's company, which makes the chips that help many of these devices speedily process the gobs of data they're receiving, stands a good chance of becoming the Intel of the broadband era.
Nicholas characteristically deflects the comparison as...too modest. "We don't want to be the next Intel," he declares. "We want to be the first Broadcom."
Indeed, the Irvine, California-based Broadcom, and Nicholas himself, are well-positioned to be the gatekeepers to the broadband future. Broadcom's chips help data maintain speed as it enters the notoriously slow "last-mile" between the high-speed Internet's backbone and consumers' homes; they can also be embedded in the slew of information appliances that may soon displace the PC as the primary tool though which people interact with the Web. Analysts estimate that the company's chips, which send data flying through these devices anywhere from 100 to 1,000 times faster than a standard 56k modem, already reside in more than 80 percent of all cable modems, digital cable TV set-top boxes and local area network switches.
Such dominance has helped make Broadcom profitable (gasp!) over the past two years. For Nicholas, who has a 17 percent stake in the company, this means a personal fortune worth billions.
But money does not seem to be Nicholas's prime motivator. In fact, he left somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 to $10 million worth of options on the table at his previous company, the telecom equipment-maker PairGain Technologies, where, as founding director of microelectronics, he led a team that developed a highly profitable DSL technology (which enables a phone's ordinary copper wires to transmit data super-quickly). But when PairGain's management balked at Nicholas's request to create a separate unit for his group, he bolted and launched Broadcom.
It wasn't the first time that the now 40-year-old Nicholas seemed to relish playing the rebel. As a teenager, in 1977, he cut against his generation's dominant political grain by registering as a Republican and enrolling in the Air Force Academy. He earned his master's and Ph.D. in electrical engineering from UCLA; his advisor was Henry Samueli, who would later help Nicholas found Broadcom. (Now the company's chief technical officer, Samueli has been called the benevolent professor to Nicholas's tough coach.) But Nicholas, it seems clear, doesn't care much what others think of his style -- as long as he can keep racing to shape the broadband future, it's full speed ahead.