For Australian company bullant, inventing technology that revolutionises how we use the Internet was easy.
Getting the rest of the world to notice? Now that's the hard part . . . ix months ago, before the Nasdaq tanked and the bridge to the 21st century ramped down into swampland, 181 Miller Street, North Sydney, was an unremarkable office block, the kind of place your dad would have toiled at in the 70s if he'd worked at an insurance agency or investment company. You know the architectural style: dated futurism. Lots of earth tones and rounded corners. Office space designed to resemble the interior of spacecraft.
Miller Street 2000 is now an e-business hotbed. The big advertising agencies and their interactive divisions are here, as are a surprising number of software developers. Across the road from 181 Miller is Vignette House, the Sydney branch of the US e-business application vendor - and Vignette House is very slick indeed. US cash is flaunted via the Vignette House facade, and you can tell that the young staff who swagger in and out of its lobby have no respect for the old-world bedrock of progress.
You could say that 181 Miller Street has finally gotten with the program. For starters, it is now bullant plaza. Sydney IT Minister Kim Yeadon launched the premises last May by giving a speech about the value of IT development.
And serious development has taken place at bullant plaza. Old style, shoulder to the wheel development, the kind of thing Australians are great at but terrible at marketing. However, we'll talk about marketing later. The important thing right now is to walk you through bullant plaza, introduce you to the key players of bullant technology, and explain how a small, locally-based IT firm has spent the past five years incubating a new computing protocol that could very well revolutionise the way we use the Internet.
But first, bullant plaza itself. Unlike the swanky exterior design of Vignette House, with its faux marble signage and meticulously rendered Vignette logo, bullant plaza is designated by large plastic lettering glued to the front of the building. The overall first impression is that the place seems kind of prefab, especially on top of the seventies look of the building's original facade. Serious development notwithstanding, bullant plaza gives off the same kind of vibe as a kindergarten or children's hospital ward - which is totally endearing when you meet the guys behind the company but a tad disconcerting as you trot up the stairs and walk through the lobby and catch the elevator up to main reception.
And here we are. The receptionist is wearing a reassuring hi-tech headset, but then there's this complex signing-in process where you have to fill out an authorisation slip which is inserted into a VIP display pass which you're told to wear around your neck and at all times. The reason for the display pass, the receptionist will tell you, is that the company has swelled from four to 120 staff in the past six months, and it's a way of keeping track of traffic through bullant plaza. But let's cut to the chase and learn the bullant backstory.
Bullant Technology was founded in 1995 by Gary Aitchison and software designer Ray Heutter. Ray Heutter has serious hardcore programming chops. First-class honours in computer science at NSWIT, along with the Wayne Slaughter prize for student with the highest aggregate mark, not to mention the Data 1982 Australian Computer Industry Award for The Best Computer Science Student in Australia. Then on to Oracle, where he was the company's technical manager, before hooking up with Gary in the late 80s. Ray also has four patents in his name.
Gary Aitchison is more "front end", having held senior public service management roles, including general manager (finance) for the NSW Land & Housing Corporation, as well as consultant/adviser positions in Energy, Youth Policy and Industrial Relations. Nice guy, Gary. Softly spoken, vaguely eccentric-looking, and disarmingly honest for a CEO. Before we even get to bullant, he's recounting the old days of his and Ray's first enterprise together in an Australian software firm called Ochre Development. The point is that Gary and Ray have been through the mill before and understand that having a good product does not guarantee success in any marketplace - especially if you're launching a product from Australia.
"You can have a global technology in Australia, and yet you are very much on the periphery in the known universe," Gary says. "Particularly in the US, where everything works on relationships. I think the real challenge for an Australian company is to forge a solid relationship base in the US, by attracting investors and making networks of contacts. I think having made mistakes in the past has conditioned us to understand the difficulties of launching a product at this scale. We've done our groundwork to make sure our product and partnerships are in place."
Bullant has been in stealth mode for the past five years, developing a new computing protocol and patenting a number of interactive products before allowing itself to blip on the e-business radar. Only now has the company started to generate press, and the press to date has been favourable, but vague. The reason for the vagueness is that bullant claims to have developed a breakthrough technology called Zero Friction Computing, which sounds cool and is accompanied by all manner of jargon-based brochureware and sales demonstrations but is hard to explain in terms of the breakthrough itself.
Killing the Third Party
Ray Heutter's away at a beach house somewhere, presumably recovering from five years of R&D. However, CTO Michael Cahill can explain the technology in detail. Like Ray, Michael's a seriously bright guy with all kinds of medals and scholarships attached to his degree. In a minute, he's going to take a pen and draw great big diagrams of how bullant technology actually works. But before he can do this, Gary needs to prep the canvas with broad Zero Friction brushstrokes and explain the philosophy behind the company.
"History has shown that the only time people will adopt a new technology is if there's a huge benefit to them," Gary says, "and underneath it all, if there's a risk that their competitors will adopt it at their expense. The killer thing we provide is that we can dramatically improve the user experience. Bullant's Zero Friction technology can slash bandwidth. Simple as that.
"When we say friction, what we mean is the friction involved in the various stages of implementing software," he continues. "The first example of this is the friction between your ideas and the reality of designing large-scale software systems. Let's say I'm building an application for a bank. I'm thinking about customers, I'm thinking about bank accounts, I'm thinking withdrawing money and depositing money. To implement this, I need a database. I need a transaction monitor. I need an application server. I need infrastructure. And this infrastructure has nothing to do with my original idea."
The infrastructure Gary is talking about revolves around the fact that computing breakthroughs in the past 20 years have been achieved by a wide range of companies programming in a wide range of codes. A classic example of this is the Web browser, which requires a number of components to function. You need an application server, which is invariably programmed in Java; and the kind of relational database supplied by hardware giants like Oracle. Java and Oracle are fundamentally different in language, so you need middleware to make them understand each other. Vast amounts of money have been spent creating middleware, and the friction Gary talks about comes out of sheer frustration with the fact that applications and databases don't speak the same language.
What bullant wants to do is kill the third party. Rather than accepting the existing system and writing state-of-the-art middleware, what they've actually done is locked big-brained Ray Heutter in a room for five years and had him develop an application server and database that can speak to each other in the same programming language.
"What Ray has done is tackle the functions of a server and database simultaneously," Cahill says. "Most companies tend to hive the various functions off to their separate engineering departments. So you have your object-oriented programming, multi-threading, multitasking, garbage collection and transactions built by separate divisions, all taking care of their respective little pictures. The breakthrough we've achieved is the fact that we've started from scratch and solved the big picture in one go."
"We didn't go down the route of saying the buyer needs this, or we foresee a huge market for that'," Gary adds. "We kept pushing for simplification; and we've managed to develop an incredibly small, incredibly simple system that performs really fast. By stripping away complexities on the design side, we've ended up stripping away friction on the execution side. Zero Friction computing allows an Internet bank to operate like a bricks-and-mortar bank, with cash balances and transactions instantly delivered and updated the moment a user makes a transaction. The reason we can do this is because we've been able to work around the existing infrastructure of computing."
"What Ray has developed is a virtual machine called the kernel, which manages potentially large amounts of memory on a server," Cahill explains. "The design goal was to be able to deal with gigabytes and terabytes of memory. Unlike HTTP, where the browser sends a request and the server responds to that specific request, bullant's protocol establishes a session between user and a server. That session is kept open so that very small amounts of information can be sent backwards and forwards.
"Most people who build businesses today start by developing a relational database to handle their transactions. Relational databases were created for systems where you have a small amount of available memory, but a significant amount of disk space. Twenty years ago, you would have had a couple of hundred kilobytes of memory if you were lucky, but maybe 20 megabytes of disk space. So you were always swapping things in and out of memory.
"Memory is now very easy to get. Systems with gigabytes or terabytes of memory will be commonplace in five or so years. Once you have enough memory to hold every relational database in the world in memory, then you can get huge efficiency gains. That's the architecture of bullant. It's in-memory architecture. You need to have enough memory to manage all your information; but when you do, bullant provides the same level of reliability as a relational database."
The World Stage
Okay. So let's recap. Bullant is built for speed and has killed the need for middleware. We have an object-oriented virtual machine that handles memory while sitting on an application server. We have relational databases. We have a breakthrough programming language. We have our VIP display pass and access to the top brass of a revolutionary new company hell bent on tilting at the global windmill of computing. So what's the angle? What does bullant actually do?
Bullant manufactures two products on the back of this new technology. There's a consumer device called the bullant remote, which the cutting-edge Net surfer can download free of charge from www.bullant.com. And there's a piece of business hardware called the Zero Friction Player, which e-business companies can buy and install on their existing sites. The idea is that the remote will talk to the player in the same language, taking HTTP out of the equation. Download the remote and find yourself a site built with bullant technology and you're in for some speedy Net surfing. Whiz-bangery aside, the technology works. The question, therefore, is not whether e-business can benefit from bullant, but whether it will be on a global scale.
The answer probably has more to do with the marketing than the technology itself.
Everywhere you look in bullant plaza, the bullant logo looms huge on every wall. Somewhere, you just know there's a staff canteen piled high with the world's largest collection of bullant coffee mugs. And while the initial response to all of this may be that our friends in bullant plaza have come on board for the big win with an awful lot of American-style zeal, the thing to remember is that Gary and Ray have played this game before. It's one thing to be an Australian company peddling wares to the US market, but trying to implement change on a global scale is a completely different ballgame. And while Australia has a great reputation for tech and scientific innovation, the sad reality is that we tend to sell it cheap to foreign markets. We rarely reap the benefits ourselves.
So bring on the baseball caps and T-shirts. Let's get that bullant logo on your PDA or phone. The ZF Player is built along classic B2B lines, and both Gary and Michael are staking the company's future on short-term demand-pull. They want to see the bullant remote on every hard drive on the planet. But this is still the little picture.
The big picture is a global rethink of computing inefficiency. The big picture is Ray's vision of a streamlined computing system built with elegant code, and Gary is raising capital to sell this vision. To date, $US21 million has been raised to market Zero Friction technology, and this time around, the company is confident that the "classic overextended Australian company into the US model" will soon be as outdated as middleware itself.
"If you can get one significant player adopting your technology, you can generate demand-pull," Gary says. "Real Audio did this with the initial market entry of its audio streaming service. It ran demand-pull extremely well. It got a couple of big clients; people started downloading its product and experiencing its technology and saying why the hell can't I get this everywhere?' And the net result is that it now has 150 million clients globally."
"At the end of the day, we think we've got a better basis for building all kinds of applications, and so we'd like to see that becoming ubiquitous. At the same time, we have products that are available today that are useful to people with existing infrastructures. The bullant kernel can provide interactive user interfaces to existing things like Web browsers and devices like phones and PDAs, which is only part of the vision we have. But it allows us to enter the market today. It allows us to identify customers and provide solutions, which is why we started developing this technology in the first place."