Story of Phone.com, Unwired Planet

This is reposted from an e-mail that Alain Rossman sent to the exphone yahoo mailing list. I wanted to archive it somewhere, so I chose here.

Dear X-Phones,

In September of 1994 Don Burtis sent me an Email telling me we should meet in San Francisco where he would be attending an AT&T conference. This Email set into motion a series of events which led me to start Libris/Unwired Planet in January of 1995, ten years ago.

1994 was the first year I had Internet based Email and I remember being excited about receiving an Email (how things change J ). I had met Don at Apple in 1985-1986 when I was in charge of 3rd party software for the Macintosh. Don ran a small consulting business that was doing validation of networking SW, then a scarce skill and an important one as Apple was rolling out AppleTalk, its first LAN technology.

At the time I received this fateful Email, I was unemployed having sold my last company (the merged EO/GO) to AT&T Consumer Division in February of the same year.. This had been my first exposure to the telecom industry and I had started to understand their business model and get an appreciation for opportunities in the communications arena.

I had also, like everybody else in Silicon Valley, become keenly interested in the Internet. I was working at the time on 3 Internet business ideas: an idea about a Web design tool, an idea about out-sourcing and running data centers for companies, an idea about delivering real time news. As was my habit at the time, I worked on multiple ideas at the same time until the ideas either died or emerged at a plausible winner.

At the meeting I listened to AT&T explaining their plans for the deployment of an IP wireless network called CDPD. I would also learn that Don had joined a San Diego company called PSCI that was thinking of developing a CDPD handset.

I remember raising my hand and asking AT&T what their software strategy was, would they provide anything to help developers write applications to leverage their network. I also remember their blank stares: software, applications? strange concepts in a pipe centric world.

The idea of delivering IP services to mass market cell phones was born at that meeting. I added it to my list of potential businesses and started working on it.

I wrote a base plan, a presentation (which I still have), and having no contacts whatsoever in the wireless world asked my wife who had worked for General Magic for a list of telco exec contacts. She gave me a list with about 5 names, from Pacbell, Airtouch, and others.

I started cold-calling and made contact with a variety of right and wrong people, always following up with a letter that summarized the benefits of the idea and always asking for names of others who might be interested.

Around November my wife got tired of my being on the phone in our apartment (we were at the times living in a condominium while our house was being) and I had listed our home number on my first set of Kinkoís business cards. I rented a windowless one room office in a suite in Redwood City (on Veterans Blvd) and moved operations there.

About that time I concluded that my pitch would be more effective with a concept demo. I called Mark Lenzner, a former Apple engineer whom I had met when he was writing the first Macintosh music APIís. He agreed to work on general architecture and on building a demo. He introduced me to Bruce Schwarz who would also work on the project as a consultant.

We had a few design meetings in December and I remember Mark coming up with the ANT, the Airnet Network Translator, the ancestor of what would become the WAP server (Airnet was my code name for the company). My office lease specified that it was strictly for 1 person, but the 3 of us would often pile up in the office, having barely enough elbow room to reach the keyboard.

About that time I decided that this opportunity was more promising that the other 3 and that I would exclusively focus on it. In January we completed the first demo, a Macintosh simulator that displayed a poorly drawn (by me) cell phone and simulated a variety of applications from Internet based address book to stock quotes. It used a Web server at Markís house as the back end (in 1995 few people had a Web server at their house).

In January also we had our first face to face carrier meeting, with PacBell. The three of us went to the meeting. After a brief presentation and demo, they told us that they would not work with us for 3 reasons:

1. Bellcore their central labs had not told them about the idea, so they though that it could not be done since they would have told them.
2. They had looked at the Internet and had concluded that it did not hold much promise especially for carriers who need QOS. As they told me: for universities and hackers perhaps.
3. They would never work with a lesser company than an IBM or an HP.
Mark and Bruce were devastated and ready to quit and I had to spend time with them right in the Pacbell parking lot to remind them that this was not the end of the road, yet. I am sure Bruce is happy I did, he would become our first full time employee, while Mark ever the free spirit decided to stick to consulting.

In March I attended a carrier show and met there many more carriers with limited success. This was as far as I remember the time when I met Chuck Parrish, whom I walked though my slides at the GTE booth. Chuck had been recommended to me in previous meetings because of his involvement in the CDPS Forum. We agreed to meet again at his HQ, in Atlanta.

In May after having met more carriers, I decided to start raising real money. I had been financing the company up to that point. I met Chuck again at GTE in Atlanta with his staff. This was a great meeting and he was the first really enthusiastic prospect. As I left the meeting we stroke a discussion in the parking lot and I mentioned that I was looking for somebody with domain expertise since I had … none. I could see that he was both intrigued and ready for a change from the corporate environment at GTE.

Chuck agreed to join as President if we could raise capital and more critically he agreed to attend some of the VC meetings. We secured our first round of external financing in June. Matrix Partners and Greylock Ventures both invested $1M at $3M pre-money valuation. They would see more than 200 to 1 return on their initial investment. That same month, 9 months after the original Email from Don, we leased a 3,000 sqft office on Middlefield in Menlo Park, renamed the company Unwired Planet, and started hiring and writing code. We were out of the gates.

Alain Rossmann

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