Gates, End of Act One

Now that Bill Gates has left his day-to-day role at Microsoft, I feel compelled to write something.

Last week ABC TV’s Lateline program contacted me asking if I would be prepared to “balance out” the positive coverage of Gates for their show. I informed them that they were asking the wrong bloke – I’m a huge Gates fanboy. I may be using a Macbook Pro as my main working PC these days, and I may think that Microsoft’s best days are long behind them, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize the importance Bill has played in the history of computing and the history of the human race.

About 12 years ago I was working at an ISP, Ozemail, and I remember lots of the techs there bagging Microsoft on a daily basis. They were mostly Linux geeks. I remember pointing out to them that none of us would likely have a job without Gates – that the low-cost “computer on every desktop” that we all benefited from was the result of Gates’ decision to license his DOS to every PC manufacturer on the planet, thereby making the hardware a commodity and driving down prices.

I started studying Gates in the early 90s. I remember buying every book I could that discussed Gates and Microsoft’s culture. I wanted to understand how and why he built the company, how it did what it did and how it became such a success.

When I had a chance to work there in 1998, I jumped at it. Even though I ended up disappointed with the culture in the Australian subsidiary, and I today can see how Microsoft’s role has changed from being an innovator to a hangeronna, it doesn’t diminish my admiration of Gates one iota. It’s not his wealth that I admire, it’s his vision, tenacity and execution. Like Napoleon, he not only saw further than most, he was able to execute around that vision. And that is so, so rare.

Many commentators are calling Gates’ new role his “third act”. I think it’s only his second. Microsoft was just the first act in what is going to be one of the most interesting lives of the 20th and 21st centuries. This guy has literally shaped the course of human history. Can you even begin to imagine what the world would look like today without the PC revolution?

Some people say “well, if Microsoft hadn’t done it, another company would have”. But we don’t know that. Apple certainly wasn’t interested in low cost computing back then – or today for that matter.

Quite possibly, without Microsoft, we’d be still living in a world where a basic home computer would cost $5,000 – $10,000. No internet outside of Universities and the military. No Spore. No Twitter.

What happens next?

My guess is that Bill will be back at Microsoft in five years. I think that Microsoft without Bill will be like Apple without Steve. It’ll flounder, collapse in internal political jostling, lose it’s best people (the ones it hasn’t already lost to Google and start-ups), the share price will continue to flounder, it’ll play even more catch-up with Google and Apple, more OEMs will defect to Linux and Google – and eventually Bill be back, refreshed from his time spent solving the world health crisis (his Act Two), ready for his personal Act Three.

One day I’d like to interview him on G’Day World. One day.

19 thoughts on “Gates, End of Act One

  1. “But we don’t know that.”

    You know more about this subject then I do, but I find your conclusion counter intuitive given the propensity of universities to spout out visionary techies. Maybe they have only gained this propensity because of Gates work, though I would still hold that PCs were always inevitable-which is not to state an opinion on where we would be now without Gates, though 20 years is a while.

  2. Jared, driving down costs isn’t something I think a “visionary techie” would even think about. That’s something that someone with a brilliant understanding of market forces would do.

    Nate – I think Twitter is almost dead already, don’t you think? It’s been a bad week for Twitter.

  3. Hmm I never considered it from this angle (the driving down the prices of computing by licensing out DOS a.s.o),it makes lots of sense.

    Mr. gates seams to me as an approachable guy (sort of), and maybe you should consider just go ahead and ask for your interview. It’s a very good time for it, and I don’t think the power of podcasting/blogging is unknown to Mr.Microsoft.
    After all you are a personality in your own right (who the fu&%¤ is Leo Laporte? :-), and who knows? he might already have heard of your alternatives in politix, religion and life as such, and thus like many of us are a sworn fan already…who knows, go check man.

    POS

  4. Aw shucks Per, I doubt Bill can either remember me (I met him a couple of times) or has heard of my post-microsoft exploits. My policy on interviews these days is to only interview someone if I think I can contribute something – if they are someone who is often interviewed, can I ask them different or better questions than the other interviews they’ve done?

    With guys like BillG and Dawkins, I don’t have a clever angle yet.

  5. I am not so sure as you are about Gates knowing about your online merits or not, but ok if you say so 🙂
    But I like your approach to whether you go get them or leave it cos all the Q’s has been asked.
    Sound philosophy in a world where media overkill is a constant.
    I would suspect it one of the secrets of your online success Mr…

    POS

  6. Good post.
    I reckon you would find the angle with Billg and you will get the interview – it’s irresistable.
    You’ve probably identifed the angle in your post anyway.
    Do you think he can apply the vision and execution to Act II ? big, bold ideas and then the balls to execute ?
    It would be more significant than Act I.

    Mike

  7. Can you even begin to imagine what the world would look like today without the PC revolution?

    Terrible. But that doesn’t mean Bill Gates is single-handedly responsible for it.

    Quite possibly, without Microsoft, we’d be still living in a world where a basic home computer would cost $5,000 – $10,000.

    I didn’t realise that Microsoft were behind Intel, AMD and TSMC. Or Compaq’s reverse engineering the IBM BIOS and the blockbuster court cases that followed.

    People point out that between them IBM and Microsoft made a backwards architecture the industry standard; that their intransigence and active back-stabbing of competitors and partners delayed technological advances by many years. There’s a lot of bitterness towards MS and towards those companies whose technology they drove out. You can surely understand how this might rebound on the man most responsible for Microsoft’s successes.

    You ask people to imagine a world without the PC revolution. My mind wanders to Xerox Parc and the Amiga.

  8. Jacques, I never meant to suggest that Bill is single-handedly responsible for the low-cost PC revolution, however, Intel and AMD didn’t drive down Apple prices, so I don’t think that example works. Compaq without a standardized operating system wouldn’t have had the ability to undercut IBM with their ability to run the same applications.

    I do understand that there is a lot of bitterness towards Microsoft from companies that were beaten by them in the marketplace – I worked at Microsoft during the DOJ trials – but I have no sympathy for companies that were beaten fair and square in the marketplace. They are just sore losers.

    Xerox Parc and the Amiga didn’t drive the marketplace economics that Microsoft did. They did some cool stuff (esp Parc’s innovation) but they didn’t take it to the world like Microsoft did.

  9. Peter, while I don’t doubt that MS will be in deeper decline in 5 years than they are now, I don’t think Gates will be back (if they do bring him back they’d be nuts).

    He’s the prime cause of MS’s decline (I wouldn’t blame Ballmer like many do, Ballmer’s not capable of anything much more than driving the jalopy off the nearest cliff).

    Look at Gate’s record:-

    * MS have (had) hiring practices that virtually ensured the employment of developers with very similar skillsets to Mr Gates – narrow bit twiddlers

    * Gates has proven in the last few years they he cannot manage large scale development (he got thrown off Longhorn and replaced by Allchin who junked most of the work done to that time)

    * previously he showed in the trust case that he was ineffective in protecting his company at a time of peril – which is why the board removed him as CEO

    * before that he promoted and executed the illegal business practices that got them into trouble in the first place

    * back in the late 80’s he showed a stunning mix of enlighted and benighted technical judgement – he tried to move the company to unix (with plans to do similar things to the public), enlightened; but executed in an appallingly benighted fashion by trying to get clerical workers to use VI

    * he started the company with a piece of opportunism (the IBM deal) and that was about the best thing he did

    As for the vision thing, let’s move forward from the start of the company

    * a computer on every desk running MS software (some also add the implication *only* MS software). Excellent vision

    * in 1995 he launched Windows 95 (without a TCP/IP stack) and MSN as a walled garden and published “The Road Ahead” in which he largely ignored the internet and dismissed it when he addressed it all. 9 months later MS turned around and released a service pack and a TCP stack.

    * his “vision” since then has consisted of Bob, WinCE, the Tablet PC and the “Surface” – all failures.

    * Other than that he’s spent bucket loads of money trying to buy access to the mobile phone, games console and embedded markets, not one of which has made a profit for the company and have largely been money pits.

    Now why would they bring him back? To be the visionary “Software Architect”? But he did that between 2000-2005 (approx) and failed to produce anything of market value, and since then he’s been the guy in the corner office with the whiteboard and has failed to deliver anything at all – he’s just been a public figurehead.

    He is no Steve Jobs is our Mr Gates. MS have been in trouble for years and Gates has failed to do anything about it. Only now is the rot so publically obvious.

    But Ballmer’s really special – all the bluster, bombast and lack of technical appreciation or talent to stiff the stock price faster than anyone else can.

  10. Well in fairness even Steve Jobs is no Steve Jobs. A lot of Apple’s recent success is to do with the combination of the big brains who developed NeXTStep and Johnathon Ive’s knack for up-to-the-second industrial design.

  11. Jacques, I never meant to suggest that Bill is single-handedly responsible for the low-cost PC revolution, however, Intel and AMD didn’t drive down Apple prices, so I don’t think that example works.

    My point is that competition between Intel, AMD and third-party fab giants has done more to drive down the cost of hardware than any software trend. You may recall that things were getting fairly stagnant until AMD turned up with the first Athlons.

    Compaq without a standardized operating system wouldn’t have had the ability to undercut IBM with their ability to run the same applications.

    Absolutely. But by the same token, Microsoft without Compaq would have likewise been pretty unimportant by now. And both of them were riding IBM’s coat-tails.

    I do understand that there is a lot of bitterness towards Microsoft from companies that were beaten by them in the marketplace – I worked at Microsoft during the DOJ trials – but I have no sympathy for companies that were beaten fair and square in the marketplace. They are just sore losers.

    There are places where Microsoft genuinely out competed everybody; the most important was bringing a cheap, widely available platform to market. It might have sucked and been years and years behind the state of the art, but it was cheap enough to capture the low end and percolate up from there. Microsoft undercut their competitors and once the network effect kicked in they were sweet.

    Xerox Parc and the Amiga didn’t drive the marketplace economics that Microsoft did. They did some cool stuff (esp Parc’s innovation) but they didn’t take it to the world like Microsoft did.

    That’s where some of the bitterness comes in. Xerox had the resources but the management lacked vision (they could have, as it happens, really have used a Bill Gates). Amiga had the technology but the management was inept.

    What Microsoft had was a pretty clear idea of how the PC revolution would play out in a business sense. But they didn’t do much on the technological side compared to those two pioneers. That’s why a lot of people are bitter. Had MS pushed Xerox- or Amiga-like technology we could have come further than we have.

    Still, spilt milk and all that.

  12. Cam

    I won’t dispute your version of history and the man’s great vision. But, I don’t think he’ll be back.

    Why?

    The future is going to be all about the mobile – the mobile will do to the PC what Gates (and others) did to the mainframe. And while Bill might understand that intellectually, Microsoft under his leadership has proved time and again that they don’t understand how to execute in this market.

    I hope he continues his brilliant career in philanthropy and changes the world in another way. But it’ll take someone else to save MS, if it needs saving in the future.

    Russell

  13. Haha you never miss a chance to stick in your “the future is mobile” line, do you mate? I agree that mobile is a big part of the future and that microsoft’s efforts in that space have sucked over the last decade, but I still think the PC is going to be important for a long time to come. I’m not going to be editing video podcasts on my iphone or watching porn on it… okay, I might watch porn on it. Ok, I’ll definitely watch porn on it (when they get the flash player working). But still think that the mobile will only be a small part of my daily computing experience a decade from now. It’ll be important when I’m out of the house and for alerts and for entertainment (podcasts, TV shows, etc). But I can’t see it replacing my macbook pro UNLESS it ships with goggles and a big keyboard.

  14. Ahh..looks like I’m getting predictable. Or perhaps that’s what they call branding 🙂

    I’d suggest that what will actually happen is that your phone will be your only device and that when you want to do something which requires more, you’ll just dock it with a suitable tool. The most common tools will be a keyboard (although I’m pretty sure a better inputting interface will emerge eventually) and a screen – for your porn viewing mainly. The screen may indeed be replaced with goggles at some point.

    As much as anything, this is going to be driven by emerging markets, who have leapfrogged the PC altogether. With that many people using that many devices, it’s going to have a very profound impact on how we do things elsewhere.

    That really is the world we’re heading for and Gates will be as capable of dealing with it as the post-Alzheimers anti-hero Robert Gu in Vinge’s Rainbows End – thanks for the recommendation.

    Toodle pip. Enjoy France.

    Russell

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