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.