If you're the other kind of person, your mental calculus is much simpler. You see him not so much as a flawed man, redeemed or otherwise, but as an unavoidable pest of the Internet age -- the kind who infiltrates your computer, who hijacks your homepage, who makes surfing the Web more pain than pleasure.
If you hold this latter view, you're not alone. In the past year, entire message boards have been devoted to Atlanta businessman Rob Martinson and his products, Mail Wiper and Spy Wiper. He has been called scum, his bloodline has been cursed, and he's been threatened with imaginative forms of violence.
The vitriol has spread to the courts, where at least two computer users have filed lawsuits against Martinson. The Better Business Bureau in Atlanta has quietly compiled a folder of dozens of complaints from computer owners across America and Canada. And in Washington, D.C., the Center for Democracy and Technology, a policy organization that advocates privacy and free expression on the Internet, earlier this year filed a 24-page complaint against Martinson's company with the Federal Trade Commission.
Yes, the 44-year-old Martinson is in a lot of crosshairs -- of people who've never even seen him, much less know him. Which raises some questions: Who is Rob Martinson? Where did he come from? And does he deserve all this hatred?
Although Martinson wouldn't talk in any detail to CL, public records and interviews with former colleagues show that his journey to becoming such a vilified figure has come via a circuitous and tortured route.
In 1987, Robert Ripberger was an undergraduate at the University of New Orleans, studying computer programming. One of his projects was a software program that was designed to help companies with their scheduling and internal messaging. Ripberger posted his software on the Internet, which at that time was little more than a collection of text bulletin boards, used by academics and techno-geeks.
One day, Ripberger got a call from a man who introduced himself as Rob Martinson. Martinson explained he was a computer reseller in California and that he'd seen Ripberger's software on an Internet bulletin board. "Your software is too good," Ripberger recalls Martinson telling him. "It should be sold commercially."
Ripberger flew to California to meet Martinson. "He was a good motivator," Ripberger says. "He could sell anything to anybody."
They set up shop outside New Orleans, eventually naming the company Futurus. Their product was Ripberger's software, which they called Right Hand Man and which they constantly tinkered with to keep up-to-date. In many ways, the partnership was a cliche -- Ripberger was the quiet, studious type, while Martinson had the flash and boundless energy. Ripberger recalls him staying up all night to get ready for trade shows.
"Looking back, it was a good beginning," Ripberger says. "But after we were in business awhile, he thought the company was all his." As Ripberger recalls, the two had agreed from the outset that they eventually would be equal partners, once the company was established and out of debt. "But the numbers [of my share of the company] kept going down, the percentages. Forty percent, then 30 percent. Finally I said the hell with this and left in 1990."
In 1991, the two sued each other in federal court in Louisiana. Says Ripberger: "I thought the software was mine. He thought the software was his." In 1992, a consent order stipulated that Martinson pay $250,000 to Ripberger, spread out over monthly installments. In return, Ripberger says, Futurus continued selling his software, while he was free to continue developing it on his own. Today, that software is a foundation of Ripberger's current company, Lan-Aces, based in Houston.
Less than a month after the lawsuits were first filed, Martinson announced he was moving Futurus to Atlanta. In an upbeat story in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that November, Martinson explained that after considering Boston, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and San Francisco, he settled on Atlanta because of its pool of available talent. He cited annual revenues of about $3 million. "We're finding Atlanta is becoming the Silicon Valley of the South," he was quoted as saying.
By 1993, Futurus was boasting in press releases that its software packages were installed in more than 450,000 computers worldwide. It employed 40 people.
But by the mid-'90s, the founder of Futurus was in crisis. Martinson and his wife divorced. He turned to drugs. In January 1995 he was given four years' probation after being charged with cocaine possession. When a drug test turned up positive a few months later at his probation office, he was sentenced to two to four months in the Colwell Probation Detention Center in Blairsville.
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