The man who would be Gates
If Microsoft's adversaries had built a CEO to take on the world's biggest and most feared software company, their creation might have resembled Rob Glaser.
The founder of RealNetworks has what associates describe as the ideal profile for competing with the Gates empire. Whip-smart and driven, the 38-year-old maverick is also a Microsoft veteran. From his 1983 graduation from Yale College until 1993, Glaser learned Microsoft's methods from the inside out.
"I think the way to be successful against Microsoft is to understand Microsoft, to know your enemy," said Karl Jacob, chief executive of Keen.com and friend to Glaser. "Rob really did."
The resulting aggressiveness and tenacity, honed under Gates himself, are seen by admirers as key assets in his role as chief executive that have contributed mightily toward RealNetworks' success. Others, however, view those same qualities as potential liabilities that have at times done more harm than good--often inspired by animosity toward his former employer.
Glaser's temper "could be a detriment on morale and efficiency in releasing products," said one former Microsoft employee who worked under him. "He could be a very passionate guy, and with that passion he would be very vocal about his displeasure in how things were going wrong."
Responding to such criticism, the dot-com billionaire defends his passionate ways.
"It's hard to respond to general and anonymous comments," Glaser said. "But we are very passionate about what we do, we have a great team, and the organization has the stamina to execute...I'm very proud of the team that we've got."
Departures of senior executives have drawn attention in Seattle and on Wall Street, and some close to the company attribute the turnover to the difficulty of working with or for Glaser. One industry analyst says investors have long since known about his temper and have factored it into their assessment of RealNetworks, calling it "the No. 1 risk factor when we talk about the company."
Glaser dismissed concerns about employee churn. "I'm incredibly proud of the way we've grown," he said. "We've been super-stable on a management level."
Some say that Glaser has changed in recent years but that his reputation for being difficult continues to follow him from his days at Microsoft. There, sources say, his initial success gave way to internal sniping.
Glaser led the Microsoft Word group, which made gains on competitors in word processing; he then worked on Microsoft's networking group, where he made gains against Novell. His accomplishments as vice president of multimedia and consumer systems at Microsoft are the subject of debate, however.
With a vision that would come true years after his departure, Glaser fought internecine battles to steer Microsoft toward a more aggressive integration of multimedia capabilities and the operating system, an effort that now wins him plaudits even from his then-adversaries at Microsoft.
"I give Rob a lot of credit for being visionary and driven," former Microsoft executive Brad Silverberg wrote in an email interview. "Honestly, I resisted his efforts to have multimedia integrated into 'my' Win 3.1, and I'm glad to say Rob prevailed. He was right, I was wrong...I think that's a good example of Rob: smart, visionary, aggressive, driven, high-energy, competitive. He'll do whatever it takes to win."
In the end, though, some say corporate politics took its toll. "Unfortunately, it came to a choice between two high IQs and aggressive execs at Microsoft," Silverberg wrote. "And Bill chose the other guy. So Rob ended up leaving."
Whatever the cause of Glaser's departure, the insights gleaned from 10 years on the job in Redmond undoubtedly have helped him both skirt Microsoft's strengths and exploit its weaknesses.
"He played amazingly well against a company that had two divisions for what he was doing in one company," Jacob said. "If you look at Microsoft, they had platform effort and application effort (for multimedia software). Rob took advantage of the fact that it's relatively difficult for two divisions of a company to execute well on one thing."
As Glaser faces an adversary that has been widely feared--and successfully sued--for its business practices, many of his associates and the company's financial backers express confidence that his intelligence, determination and business acumen will see him through any fight. Critics, however, consistently point to one high-profile incident as evidence that Glaser is capable of undermining himself.
The battle with Microsoft reached its most public and, to RealNetworks, most damaging point when Glaser demonstrated in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee how Microsoft's Windows technology could "break" the RealNetworks RealPlayer software. Microsoft defended itself strenuously against the charge.
Sources close to Glaser described him as unrepentant after the Senate episode. But some of those associates acknowledged that Glaser's conduct was counterproductive.
"I really do think he and Microsoft went way overboard when he went to talk to Congress," one source close to Glaser said. "They both stretched the truth. The truth was that it was beta software, and Microsoft didn't (break) it intentionally. Rob knows how Microsoft works, and he knows that. A lot of people at Microsoft felt very betrayed. He got a great deal from them, one only someone from Microsoft could have gotten, and to turn on them was unfortunate. He pushed a little too hard."
Despite reports involving his temperament, many give Glaser good marks for citizenship. Venture capitalist and early RealNetworks investor Jim Breyer said he was aware of Glaser's reputation from Microsoft but never witnessed any negative traits.
"He has never, in any of our thousands of discussions, never been hotheaded. He challenges me, and I look to him for insight," Breyer said.
Glaser's associates portray him as a man of wide interests, including popular culture and sports, who is known for his charitable largesse. With 51 million shares in the company he founded, Glaser is worth more than $2.5 billion and has set about giving away money through the Glaser Family Foundation.
"He's one of the few high-tech executives my wife tolerates," said Bruce Jacobsen, former president and chief operating officer of RealNetworks. "She's a schoolteacher, and while everyone else comes over and talks about companies and deals, Rob knows who runs the school districts in Seattle. He's interested in what's going on in the world."
Still, for all his worldliness and generosity, many of Glaser's admirers continue to cite the same qualities that exasperate his detractors.
"Rob Glaser is a pit bull son of a bitch, and I say that only in the most affectionate way," said another former high-level Microsoft employee. "That's part of what makes him so successful. It's probably not for the faint of heart."
Go to: Plan B: Embrace and extend