What if ... Gates, Microsoft had never been born?

Summary:It may sound a little silly -- especially amid the seriousness of what now swirls around Microsoft and Intel. But then again, if Frank Capra's conceit was that superfluous, why is it that we've all watched his classic "It's a Wonderful Life" over again?

It may sound a little silly -- especially amid the seriousness of what now swirls around Microsoft and Intel. But then again, if Frank Capra's conceit was that superfluous, why is it that we've all watched his classic "It's a Wonderful Life" over again? And we'd so willingly sit through it again.

It's not so much the movie that endures but, instead, that one central "what-if" question Clarence the Angel applied to George Bailey's life. What if he'd never been born? In the end, the Christmas gift George really received was clarity and perspective.

It was in the cause of clarity and perspective that we decided to reprise the Clarence role, and ask the same what-if when it comes to antitrust controversy in which Microsoft has become the central player. Just as New Bedford would have been someplace else entirely without George Bailey, the modern world just wouldn't be the same without Bill Gates, Microsoft and Windows. But how would things have changed if they'd never existed?

For an answer, we first we went to Paul Saffo, who's practiced at imagining the world as it isn't. He's a forecaster who's watches technology trends from Institute of the Future.

The scene he unreels: Bill Gates is a business genius -- not a technological visionary. Thanks to his dollars and sense, PCs are cheaper, more plentiful, and have proliferated far faster than they otherwise would have. But because Microsoft tends to "embrace," not invent, the now ubiquitous PC is probably far less sophisticated than it otherwise be.

Then we went to W. Brian Arthur. As a former professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., he's been studying the high-tech economy for 18 years. Now at the Santa Fe Institute, he's propounding a new theory of the dismal science, which doesn't make it so dismal anymore: In the new, high-tech economy, the old law of "diminishing" returns hold sway no longer. Now the economy's most precious natural resource, knowledge, is accretive.

These circumstances of "increasing returns" provides the perfect for dominant companies. So his conclusion is that if Microsoft hadn't been born, then another company, just like it, would have.



It's a wonderful life?


Forecaster Saffo imagines fewer, but smarter, PCs .


Econmist Arthur says if there wasn't a Bill, there'd be someone like him.


Software maker Johnson thinks it would be a dreadful life.




Finally, we went to Ted Johnson, who co-founded Visio Corp., which makes Windows-based drawing and diagramming packages. Instead of forecasts and theories, he traffics in the concrete world of real products for customers and users.

And he thinks the world would be a mess without Windows. As the market's de facto standard, it has been a great unifier. Without it, moving information from one application to another becomes a nightmare. It takes not one, but several OSes to run different applications. And you can only do one thing at a time.

Of course, Bill Gates, Microsoft and Windows were born. We have them -- for better or worse. They will continue to be with us for a good long time.

Still, doddering Clarence always had a way of clarifying the real issue...

Topics: Microsoft, Hardware, Intel, Legal, Operating Systems, PCs, Software, Windows

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