Thoughts on Bill Gates

Thoughts on Bill Gates

Summary: When I think of Bill Gates, I can't help but think back to that famous photo taken of his team shortly before they moved up to Washington State from Albuquerque.  This rag-tag band somehow served as the base for a company that now employs 75,000+ people (including myself, until recently) and is the company that occupies so much of the thinking time of journalists and bloggers who write anything related to the market for software.


When I think of Bill Gates, I can't help but think back to that famous photo taken of his team shortly before they moved up to Washington State from Albuquerque.  This rag-tag band somehow served as the base for a company that now employs 75,000+ people (including myself, until recently) and is the company that occupies so much of the thinking time of journalists and bloggers who write anything related to the market for software.

How did that team create a company that made Bill Gates, at one point, richer than the combined GDPs of all of Central America (less in 2008 dollars)?

I don't think you can plan to be that successful. Granted, you can do things that put yourself on one of the tracks in the success-related train station. But as an entrepreneur, all you can do is make your products and pursue every opportunity vigorously in hopes that you are well positioned when fortune comes screeching through the intersection, changing your life forever (not that great success is akin to getting flattened by trains).

There is a healthy bit of luck in the story of Bill Gates. You couldn't have planned for the folks behind CP/M to act like complete idiots when IBM came looking for an operating system for their new desktop computer (they thought they were big fish before the term "big fish" had any kind of meaning in software markets). You couldn't plan that Apple would persist in keeping their operating system exclusive to their own hardware, thus depriving them of the energy that flowed through a Windows platform that harnessed the creative energies of OEMs and third-party software companies (an energy into which Apple has now partially plugged itself with its shift to Intel-based platforms).

Fortune ran Bill Gates way, and he was prepared to take advantage of it when it did.

Bill Gates isn't completely retiring. He claims he will devote a day a week to Microsoft-related business. However, he is not going to be the ideological force at the company he once was.

That's why I think it is important for everyone at Microsoft to understand that ideological legacy. Bill Gates built a company that viewed software as the pivot point in computers. Hardware is important, but it is software that smooths over cross-device ideosyncracies, along the way creating a common layer upon which third parties can build products. That created a huge market unified around a common platform that made Microsoft the massive company that it is today.

Microsoft departs from that legacy at its own peril. I said recently that Microsoft's future should be more Scott Guthrie than J Allard. What I meant by that (and explained to someone in the Talkbacks who had no idea what I was talking about) was that Microsoft should be more influenced by Scott Guthrie, Corporate Vice President of the .NET Developer Division, than J. Allard, Corporate Vice President of Design and Development in Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices Division.

That isn't meant to downplay the critical role that J. Allard plays in the company. To my mind, however, any piece of hardware Microsoft makes should be designed with an eye towards guiding the platform and licensees in useful directions. The only way to learn how to make a platform support well-designed hardware is to know what well-designed hardware looks like (and learn how to make it). As a platform company, however, Microsoft should always ensure that the software that runs on Microsoft hardware should be made available to all third parties (in other words, no Zune-specific DRM). Universal compatibility takes primacy of place at platform companies.

Microsoft is not Apple, nor should it try to become Apple. Microsoft is a platform company.

That is the legacy of Bill Gates.

Modifications to the core recipe make sense in 2008. As I've noted elsewhere, closed protocols make little sense in a software universe that today threads every aspect of most people's lives. That, however, isn't a modification of the central theme, that software - not hardware - is the pivot point in computer markets. It just means that software has to seamlessly interoperate with a lot more software not made by the same company (or running on its platforms), and that can only occur if the software conforms to well-understood and documented protocols.

The core theme guiding the development of the company from its early years is still a solid one. I just hope enough people at Microsoft appreciate that legacy so that it continues to inform Microsoft strategy for the foreseeable future.

Topics: Software, CXO, Hardware, Microsoft, IT Employment

John Carroll

About John Carroll

John Carroll has delivered his opinion on ZDNet since the last millennium. Since May 2008, he is no longer a Microsoft employee. He is currently working at a unified messaging-related startup.

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  • Good lawyering

    One thing that is often forgotten
    is the fact that, when Gates
    purchased and licensed dos to
    IBM, the contract was the "killer

    It required IBM to pay for DOS on
    every machine whether they used
    it or not, while allowing MS to
    license DOS to anybody. Later
    MS was able to require other
    licensees to sign the same

    That contract provided the cash
    cow and effectively killed any
    early competitors to MSDOS.

    So a lot of Gates' money could be
    attributed to a crafty lawyer
    • also fud illegal monopoly and the rest

      wow what a nice compagny
      • That was much later

        Gates did not hold a gun to the
        head of the IBM execs or their
        lawyers. IBM, and later IBM
        competitors, willingly signed teh

        If you want to call somebody
        "bad", you might think of the
        lawyers who approved teh
        contract and the execs who
        agreed to it.
        • IBM wanted the PC to fail

          You have to remember tht IBM was at the peak of their power and did not believe in the PC concept. They believed in distributed services around their big iron main frames. Nobody needed more than a dumb terminal, and real distributed networks did not exist. We are moving back to that model with cloud computing.

          That is why IBM did not lock down DOS, but only licensed it. They picked an inferior Intel processor and an inferior OS because they wanted to show that nobody would want such a pathetic machine. But corporate America desparately wanted a standard for PC's and the IBM model was the one they wanted. Thanks to IBM's stupidity, Microsoft became the powerhouse. I can't really think of anything that Bill Gates actually originated in his career. He was lucky and licensed or copied other people's ideas. The IBM imprimatur during the eighties made everything the standard, and Microsoft got locked in no matter how bad their products were.
          • Ri<i>dic</i>ulous!

            The original IBM PC was a bit of a skunk-works project, and IBM didn't expect much from it--they were ridiculously short-sighted, and didn't do a lot to promote the thing, but they didn't want the thing to fail.

            (I worked for IBM back then and saw the original Serial Nr 1, in Boca Raton, in 1983 or '84. A friend of mine was one of IBM's corporate pilots and after the PC was made public had a Gulfstream (a fairly big corporate jet) fitted with a table with some straps to hold a PC down--the objective was to provide a demo platform for PCs for execs from other companies as IBM ferried them around. I borrowed a hot-off-the-assembly-line PC from my lab, installed it in the Gulfstream, and we took off with a couple of IBM VPs, These guys had no trouble at all reining-in their enthusiasm...)

            (As an aside, in addition to demoing the PC-in-flight concept to the VPs, we were also making sure both that the PC would continue to works under aircraft G-stresses and that the planes navigation equipment wasn't affected. The former of these involved bouncing that plane all over the sky with positive, negative, and lateral G, weird attitudes, etc. This may have accounted for some of the VPs lack of enthusiasm...
            Henry Miller
  • RE: Thoughts on Bill Gates

    I will always remember his "fireside chat" where he appealed to the public for MicroSoft's "freedom to innovate". What a lying sack of sh*t ! (actually he should have had that expression embroidered on his sweater). The very next day Judge Jackson's career was torpedoed. Thanx for the memories.
    • Judge Jackson was his own worse enemy

      Judge Jackson was his own worse enemy. He should be kept his trap shut and kept his personal opinions about Bill Gates to himself. The Microsoft lawyers had a field day with Jackson's loose lips and personnal opinions. Jackson should have kept quiet, and when asked what he thought he should have said something diplomatic like, "it would be premature to make a judgement before all evidence is provided by both parties" and left it at that.

      It was Jackson who screwed it all up; the DOJ had the evidence, it was Jacksons big mouth which screwed up the water tight case - so don't go around blaming Bill for Jacksons incompetency.
  • Thoughts on Dollar Bill

    IT is amazing to me that after dragging their feet and appealing every court decision to PREVENT other companies from interoperating with their products - which their competitors kept badgering and suing them about - their best course of action is to do EXACTLY that. Never mind the M$hills that blindly parroted whatever crap their master did, never mind the rise of FOSS as a reaction to interoperability issues, never mind the findings of fact before a US court - all of this could, no SHOULD have been avoided.

    I'll ask this one question which Cringely asked in a hypothetical interview with DB:

    "If you had played fair and not abused your monopoly power would Microsoft be significantly smaller or less successful than it is today?"

    Roger Ramjet
    • Playing "fair" is for sports

      Business plays to win - which Microsoft did.

      Get over it.
      Confused by religion
      • like spygate? (nt)

      • Which is why...

        ...we have all of those silly complicated laws. Small government is for people who will restrain themselves.
        John L. Ries
  • Platform for What?

    "Microsoft is not Apple, nor should it try to become Apple.
    Microsoft is a platform company."

    This excerpt is an implication that Apple is not a platform
    company. With Microsoft expanding it's Mac Business Unit
    to supply the Mac with software, it's hard to imagine how
    that isn't the case.

    So what are we really talking about here? Apple offers a
    software development platform to 3rd parties so they are a
    platform for software. Is it that Apple just isn't good
    enough at it? Still, that shouldn't exclude them from
    consideration should it? Are they or are they not a player?

    No, what we're really talking about is hardware.
    Apparently, we're also talking about the "creative energies"
    of the OEMs. Those creative energies got started with the
    theft of IBMs ROM by Compaq. Creative energies have been
    responsible for creating a street barker's marketplace full
    of blue eyed frontmen for cheap Chinese motherboards.
    Try not to read this as xenophobia, it's not, but IBM is now
    Levono, Dell is being sued for deceptive practices by by its
    customers, HP has "raised the bar" with undependable
    machines, and terrible service, and Gateway is
    "beleaguered". This rounds off the roster of those who
    even pretend to be something other than knockoff artists.
    And you know what, there's nothing wrong with that.
    Everyone gets what they pay for.

    Thanks to Microsoft, we're afforded the opportunity of
    picking one of these paragons of virtue. We can choose
    this logo or that logo, this colour of plastic or that, this list
    of crapware or that. Isn't choice great!

    But wait, Isn't it really Intel that is offering the X86 spec
    that this hardware is based on? When it comes to
    hardware, isn't it really Intel's platform?

    So both Microsoft and Apple offer a platform for
    development, so that can't be what being referred to.

    What's being referred to is the economic platform provided
    by Windows. What's wrong with that?

    It's a false economy. It subverts and obscures the open
    market. What's wrong with letting a company make
    money? Nothing, but ask that of Microsoft. They are the
    ones with the history of erecting barriers and denying
    access to competition.

    But that was then and this is now. Now, Microsoft
    shouldn't need to "be" Apple. The notion that this question
    even gets raised and might become the agenda, is more
    profound than any opinion for or against that should

    I think this is indeed now.
    Harry Bardal
  • RE: Thoughts on Bill Gates

    Who gets Bill Gates office on Microsoft's campus?
    Loverock Davidson
    • Apparently...

      ...Steve Ballmer. He is moving into Gates' office once he leaves.
      John Carroll
  • I should have bought their stock when they were selling MBasic...

    At the time, I thought it was over-priced.
    Mac Hosehead
  • RE: Thoughts on Bill Gates

    "There is a healthy bit of luck in the story of Bill Gates"

    None bigger than the reverse engineering of the PC BIOS
    (Compaq) which created the inexpensive PC and gave MS

    JC why not link to these pictures;-)
    Richard Flude
    • Yes, reverse engineering the PC BIOS...

      ...was important, but that demonstrates the point. MS-DOS WAS licensable to COMPAQ.

      Many dominos must fall to make Microsoft the company it is today, and not all of them were under Gates control, as I noted in the post.
      John Carroll
  • What would Microsoft be without Steve Jobs?

    I am still utterly dumb-struck when I read all these
    eulogies of Bill Gates' abilities. "Fortune ran his way?"

    The monopoly was built through illegal means on the one
    hand and the naivet?? of Apple on the on the other hand.

    MS-Dos was the end all be all until Mac came to be.

    The Apple GUI (bought and developed from Xerox, all done
    above board) showed that MS-Dos was not the future.

    Microsoft developed Excel and Word for the Mac.
    Microsoft was always a big seller of user-oriented software
    for the Mac.

    Ignoring the Steve Jobs-Bill Gates relationship in the early
    days of Microsoft is to ignore how Windows was born and
    ow the monopoly was created.

    But hey, most people believe in God, too, and I've yet to
    see proof he or she exists!

    Bill Gates is a very lucky man indeed.... lucky to have met
    Paul Allen and luck to have worked with Steve Jobs.
    • RE:What would Microsoft be without Steve Jobs?

      So, Bill Gates met those amazing people to whom he actually owes his success but none of those individuals achieved what Bill Gates achieved. Why?
      • Daddy's money, non-restrictive OS contract with IBM

        "So, Bill Gates met those amazing people to whom he actually
        owes his success but none of those individuals achieved what
        Bill Gates achieved. Why? "

        and Compaq reverse engineering the PC BIOS to create the
        clone market for PCs.

        Alternatively we could mark his success down to all those MS
        innovations, like (cue sounds of birds chirping)...
        Richard Flude