Lone Wolf

Boats are playing on the breezy Charles River this late June Boston morning, but in the Allston walk-up office of Athena Design, there are no lazy, hazy days of summer. After seven months of intense development, Athena is set to ship the final beta of Mesa, "a traditional spreadsheet that lives perfectly in the NeXT world," according to president David Pollak. If all goes well, Mesa will be ready to ship to customers by mid-August.

There is no time to relax. Several months ago, Pollak was negotiating to license Mesa to Appsoft. The deal fell through, however, and now Appsoft has instead acquired rights to the one program that could compete with Mesa, the long-dormant PowerStep. Both Mesa and PowerStep, which Appsoft has said it will repackage as Appsoft Solution, are native NeXTSTEP programs that are fully compatible with Lotus 1-2-3, a niche currently unfilled by Informix's Wingz (a Macintosh port) and Lotus Improv (a one-of-a-kind financial modeler).

It is somewhat unusual for a NeXTSTEP software category to experience such a heated fight for market share. And Pollak knows that without the substantial marketing resources of an Appsoft, Lotus, or Informix, his best chance is to get Mesa to market quickly.

Despite the seeming great odds, the 28-year-old Pollak exudes a quiet confidence. With 14 years of professional programming experience and a law degree already behind him, Pollak has gambled his life savings on Mesa. "If it fails, I can always put on a suit and go back to lawyering or else put in 60-hour weeks custom programming. But this feels right, it feels good," Pollak says.

Pollak began commercial development work as a teenager. He developed a system for the Federal Emergency Management Agency in which Apple IIs served as character generators for a civil-defense system. He also worked on Commodore 64 database products for Spinnaker Software. In 1984, he won an award for a set of Commodore utilities.

After graduating from Rhode Island College, he worked briefly in business and then went on to law school at Boston University. Later, he interned for a Boston law firm specializing in high-technology law and passed the Rhode Island bar.

While he enjoyed the challenge of the law, Pollak found that programming better suited his personal style. In the summer of 1989, he discovered UNIX and object-oriented programming. His interest in NeXT soon led him to Developer Camp and the NeXT chapter of the Boston Computer Society, whose presidency he briefly assumed.

In order to get a better feel for the workings of the NeXT market, Pollak wrote and shipped a commercial game package, Culture Shock, in March 1991. "It took all of a day to write," says Pollak. Still, its clever use of sound in a Shanghai tile game attracted fans, many of whom passed it around illegally from machine to machine.

Now Pollak was ready for a substantial product on which he could make some money. He started work on Mesa in the fall of 1991. A few weeks later he met some developers at a NeXT seminar in Washington, and word of his project was soon out. Expecting to need help with marketing and distribution, he talked with virtually every publisher in the NeXT market. If there was to be a deal to license the program, the most likely partner was Appsoft, which had the funding and the business plan to publish and aggressively market a NeXT spreadsheet program.

Talks between Pollak and Appsoft executives Randy Adams and Peter Karnig did not go well, however, and Pollak eventually turned down the contract that was offered. "It wasn't a matter of money, but of attitude. I was disappointed with the way they treated the relationship," Pollak says.

Instead of a partner, Pollak gained a competitor. He claims Mesa is faster, has a cleaner user interface, and has a lead of six months in getting to market. On the other hand, he acknowledges that PowerStep has a more sophisticated macro language, a deficiency Pollak intends to correct in Mesa's second release.

"My biggest vulnerability is market perception," Pollak says. Can a small, independent company compete with the big boys? It is a question only time can answer. As the Boston summer entered the dog days, Pollak seemed to have time on his side.

by Dan Ruby