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Dotcom Dreamer: Sabeer Bhatia

Hotmail founder Sabeer Bhatia may have often burnt his fingers, but with his latest venture, he has proved he still has a raging fire in his belly, writes Zia Haq.

india Updated: Jan 25, 2008 23:56 IST
Zia Haq

When Hotmail founder Sabeer Bhatia launched Live documents last year, an office suite menacingly similar to Microsoft Office, global geek gurus greeted it with more jeers than cheers. Despite the fact that an MS Office-like application had been developed without using any of Microsoft’s codes, critics sensed a smart gameplan in it. They felt Bhatia had deliberately modelled it on MS Office — even the icons bore striking resemblance — so that it worked as another bait for Microsoft boss Bill Gates to buy it out. The Hotmail encore, however, has yet not happened.

Nevertheless, the software poster boy proved one thing. He may not quite be the hottest male around in Silicon Valley but he still has a raging fire in his belly.

The 39-year-old St. Joseph’s Boys’ High School, Bangalore, pass-out is now a veteran of many e-ventures. He may have burnt his fingers during the dotcom meltdown and after, but his core competency remains patently unique. It is to turn a seemingly small, simple and clear idea into a powerful technological tool.

On January 16, he launched his latest offering, SabseBolo.com, a free web-based conferencing facility targeted at medium small and medium enterprises and entrepreneurs. The question that, obviously enough, everyone is asking is whether the Midas touch will be back or if he will burn his fingers again.

First-mover advantage

If you ask Bhatia ‘why a free conferencing facility on the web?’, the answer remains the same pithy one-liner that poured on everyone’s ears when Hotmail became a cult obsession: “Because there is none.”

“I very much believe that the free conference IDs we are distributing on SabseBolo.com are very much like the free e-mail IDs that we distributed with Hotmail,” Bhatia says, during a short stay in Delhi, awaiting a flight to the UK next day. When the dotcom bubble flattened in the early 2000s, Bhatia took a big hit too. Flush with the success of Hotmail, which got sold for $400 billion to Microsoft, he had launched Arzoo.com which is Urdu for “heart’s desire”. When Arzoo died down in the meltdown of online companies, Bhatia’s message was elegiac: “I regret to inform you that we have shut down operations…necessitated by a severe downturn in the US economy.”

The starry-eyed dotcom dreamer, however, remains very much like the Ferrari F1 355 Spider he owns: racing up and down the information superhighway in search of fresh new ideas.

For one, Bhatia is no fly-by-night software techie operating from an basement apartment. His life has been an incredible journey, which has seen him revolutionise web applications for the end-user. While still at Pilani, he had tried for a transfer scholarship at Cal Tech, globally ranked the world’s most competitive scholarship. Cal Tech rarely agrees for a transfer scholarship. Winning it was rarer still.

Bhatia, a Stanford graduate, was the only applicant in 1988 to clock a score of 62. And then, as the cliché goes, there was no turning back.

Inventor of ideas

This BITs Pilani and Stanford-educated tech wizard has crystallised amazingly simple ideas into magic devices.

Frustrated with a predominantly business e-mail system which was off-limits for private users, Bhatia and his colleague at Apple, Jack Smith, hit upon a plain-vanilla idea: why not bring the e-mail to private domain and make it free of cost at that. Thus Hotmail was born. Now you didn’t need your net access account that piggybacked a corporate account; just any computer with a web connection would do. When Bill Gates bought it out, it had 11 million users. Now, it has nearly 480 million more.

Live Documents was his most ambitious application, post-Hotmail: his answer to Microsoft Office. “Each one of my ventures begins with what I’ve thought of as a good idea that needed to be brought to market. Live Documents addresses a space that is currently owned by Microsoft — that of Productivity Applications (dominated by Office). We’ve taken all of the features of Office 2007 and replicated them online without using any Microsoft code,” he says.

“This market generates annual revenues of $20 billion for Microsoft and we’re attacking it by making it FREE for the end-consumer,” he said, requesting the word “free” be spelt in upper case.

Life-work balance

Bhatia may have spawned a wired world tied to computers, but he loves the outdoors, plays tennis almost everyday and on the weekends loves to tee off in sunny San Francisco, where his plush mansion overlooks the Golden Gate bridge. During winters, he says, “I love to ski.” Very few people know this, but he has run two complete marathons — the 94 and 95 San Francisco Marathons. The high-tech man has a simple life-work balance philosophy: all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Going to Stanford for his Master’s and meeting Hotmail co-founder Jack Smith, his partner, at Apple Computer are, he says, two life-changing events.

Boom, not bumps, ahead

Silicon Valley — where he came into his own — still holds a special place in Bhatia’s heart but he now looks besotted with the Indian market, which he reaches out to through three offices: Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. So here’s some crystal gazing. India, he feels, is sitting at the cusp of an Internet revolution. “Broadband adoption in India has been slow, as compared to that in China and Korea, but there is a lot of work underway that will change this equation.” Once broadband becomes more prevalent India, he says, will see mass-scale adoption of web-based technologies.

The man has of late shifted focus on some non-technological initiatives. Long before Ratan Tata’s Nano, Bhatia hit the road with Nanocity, a green venture: “I have now started to look at some non-technology options and some common-sense problems such as building planned cities in India that have a minimal ecological footprint. Nanocity is one such city.”

From e-ventures to town planning, Bhatia’s projects may have changed domains, but his corporate philosophy that evolved during his Hotmail days remains unchanged. “I love exploring new ideas that solve problems for humanity,” he says “and technology happens to be my playground to do this.”