My 15 minutes with Bill Gates, and how the Web was born

My 15 minutes with Bill Gates, and how the Web was born

Summary: Once upon a time, when Bill Gates still flew commercial and I was a budding journalist in need of a haircut, I had a number of opportunities to interview and otherwise interact with Bill Gates. It was often contentious, always intriguing, and more often than not frustrating as well.

SHARE:
TOPICS: Browser, Hardware
24

Once upon a time, when Bill Gates still flew commercial and I was a budding journalist in need of a haircut, I had a number of opportunities to interview and otherwise interact with Bill Gates. It was often contentious, always intriguing, and more often than not frustrating as well. Part of the problem was that my job in the mid-80's was to cover this thing called Unix and a related group of fellow travelers traveling under the rubric of the open software movement, and to say Gates and Microsoft were opposed to the whole idea would be like saying Steve Ballmer isn't a mellow guy. Gates was rabidly anti-Unix, for reasons that are too complex to enumerate here, and as a result I was persona non amata, if not non grata, in Gates' presence. Oh well.

As a result we sparred on a number of issues, and, to Gates' credit he usually managed to curb his wrath enough to hear most of my questions, before ripping, or trying to rip me to shreds. But one incident remains stuck in my mind for both the audacity of my question, the cluelessness of Gate's answer, and the resulting market forces that made Gates as right as, well Bill Gates has proven to be more often than not.

The actual date and time of the incident are lost in the fog of my memory, but the topic of the press conference is still firing on a few of my synapses: Microsoft's introduction of their multimedia PC concept. According to Wikipedia, the arrival of the multimedia PC spec was sometime in 1990, Answers.com pegs it as 1992, but I'm pretty sure Bill was flogging the idea several years earlier, circa 1988 or so.

Regardless, we're talking the stone age of PC computing, in terms of what you could and couldn't do on a basic PC. Think 64K RAM, 10 meg hard drives, color monitors as rare as a June bug in December. The spreadsheet and word processor were the killer apps, Windows hadn't even made it to its (gag) 3.0 version, and while I by then had been using PCs for a millenium or two (I had built a Heathkit 8086 machine in 1984), I was skeptical about how far Microsoft and the PC standard would be able to go, a skepticism fueled by that journalist's paycheck that arrived in my hand every month.

So there I was, in the audience, as Bill Gates was trying to warm up the market with the newest cool thing, which he was calling the multimedia PC, and I wasn't buying. Prior to becoming a journalist I had had a real job as a computer graphics programmer, working with some very (at the time) high end graphics systems that cost, believe it or not, upwards of $250,000. We had specialized graphics engines, specialized monitors, fancy plotters, and the like, and it cost a bundle and was hard as hell to work with, hence the need for a "semi"-skilled programmer such as myself to actually make any multi-media things happen.

And there was Gates pretending that we were all going to do all this on a PC, and that it was going to be really cool and fun and useful. Yeh, right. Then he went through the hardware and software spec that would be the foundation of this new computing platform, followed by a demo of what we could look forward to once this new era had been ushered in. As I recall the demo was a children's game the likes of which you wouldn't let your child near today. Not only were the graphics bad and the user experience lousy, but it was really hard to look at this and see where Gates and company could possibly take this lame little spec. Multimedia PC? For playing bad children's game. Puh-leeeeeease.

So I raised my hand and said something fresh like, "Bill, what is the killer app that's going to make this multimedia PC a must-have on every desktop?" I'm sure I said with a smirk, or some disdain, or a combination of the two. After all, my journalist colleagues were in the room and this kind of attitude was expected of all us.

Bill's answer was impressively unimpressive, and it was apparent that there was no killer app that he could cite that was going to take this funny concept and make something of it. Indeed, as I recall, he fumbled around and finally said that the spec was needed to open up the unknown possibilities of multimedia, or something like that. I left with my smirk well-justified, or so I thought.

The rest, as they say, is history, and it belonged as much to Bill's vision of a multimedia PC as anything else. As early thinking around the Web emerged from a bunch of Unix heads at CERN, it became pretty obvious to me that I had now had the answer to my question, and that, regardless of Bill's hesitation, his vision, while clearly unable to be as specific as I would have hoped, was nonetheless as keen as it needed to be. Instead of being present at another worthless press conference, I had been present at one of the key conceptual moments in the future of computing -- the World Wide Web -- and Bill Gates had, once again called it right, despite himself.

So, as Bill goes off to retirement and I look forward to slaving away for another 20 years to pay for my kids' education, I see two lessons from this experience. The first is that Bill Gates usually got things right, as long as you gave him enough time to let the market catch up. That was his singular gift, and hopefully he'll apply it to philanthropy with similar results.

The second lesson is that, if Bill is usually right, maybe it's time I shifted careers and got into philanthropy myself. Bill's clearly on to something here, and, who knows, in 20 year he may have figured out a way to put philanthropy on every desktop too. Wouldn't that be a good idea?

Topics: Browser, Hardware

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

24 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • <Snicker> BG Saw It Coming

    If Bill Gates saw the Internet & the World Wide Web coming
    well in advance of everyone, why was his company the very
    last to do anything about it?

    The real truth is that Bill Gates was great at predicting vague
    ideas that sometimes hit their mark. Many times, he was way
    off. When he hit with a vague prediction, folks like you are
    quick to point out that he is accurate. About as accurate as
    Nostradamus.
    winski
    • Worst

      Multimedia was a concept that had been rapidly developing
      by the late 80s. The idea went beyond a concept with the demonstration of Quicktime at Apple's Worldwide
      Developers conference in May 1991 (I was there). This was
      amazing technology at the time and defined many
      multimedia technologies (the basic media container is
      used today for MPEG4).

      Quicktime v1 was release later that year, a full year before
      MS feable attempt (embarrassing behind QT).

      But this is ZDNet and praise of MS regardless of
      foundation is demanded. With all the praise heaped on Bill
      you'd think that his company created something.
      Richard Flude
      • Jobs will get his too

        When Steve Jobs retires I'll write him a similar encomium, he deserves it too. But this is ZDNet so I'll wait until the opportunity is appropriate, instead of just flaming about how poor Apple never gets the credit its bigots so desperately think it deserves.
        josh@...
        • MS credited with the multimedia PC

          This article is hilarious, and inaccurate.

          "instead of just flaming about how poor Apple never gets
          the credit its bigots so desperately think it deserves."

          Perhaps we're sick of windows fanboys with their limited to
          no knowledge of history attempting to rewrite it.

          As in other Blogs I asked for one MS innovation so we can
          see Gates of with a cheer. Just one, but a true innovation.
          Cue sound of birds chirping.
          Richard Flude
          • your talkback is hilarious and inaccurate

            I never credited MSFT with the multimedia PC, though they were one of the contributors. I love the term Windows Fanboy, that's so... cute. But incredibly inaccurate, sorry. As is the assumption that I have no knowledge of history -- where were you when the MMPC was first speced.

            And what was that great innovation that Jobs and company came up with? The PC? Oops, they "borrowed" that one. The GUI -- "borrowed" again. The mouse? Microkernel OS? Can you hear the chirping????
            josh@...
          • Geez Josh

            Showing your bigotry against Apple, per chance? How can
            you from one hand write an article stating that BG innovated
            ANYTHING, and from the other write your followup that
            Apple borrowed everything?

            And don't try to somehow validate your opinion on where we
            were when the first MMPC was spec'd. That's just amateurish
            at best. We would expect more from a journalist.... Never
            mind.
            winski
          • Proves my point

            "I never credited MSFT with the multimedia PC, though
            they were one of the contributors."

            OK then what contribution. Name one original contribution
            from MS.

            "...where were you when the MMPC was first speced."

            I was at the WWDC in 1991 when Apple previewed
            Quicktime. Everyone in the room knew that was a defining
            moment. What had MS developed or demonstrated at that
            time?

            "And what was that great innovation that Jobs and
            company came up with? The PC? Oops, they "borrowed"
            that one. The GUI -- "borrowed" again. The mouse?
            Microkernel OS? Can you hear the chirping????"

            Some of Apple's innovations: sponsored the work that
            created the mass produced mouse, over lapping windows,
            regions, quickdraw, quicktime (file container underpins
            MPEG4 multimedia), the Newton, the keyboard and
            trackpad layout of the Powerbook, the Macintosh and the
            computer that started the PC revolution the Apple II.

            I note the windows fanboy mentions the mouse without
            knowing the significant contribution Apple made, typical of
            the MS fanboys ignorance.

            Now one MS innovation...
            Richard Flude
      • What MS created.

        The PC is/was not a very advanced machine but like the the old BASF commercial.

        They didn't invent the OS, they just made it accessable by putting it on the PC.
        They didn't invent Basic, they just made it accessable by putting it on the PC.
        They didn't invent GUI, they just made it accessable by putting it on the PC.
        Theyd didn't invent the mouse, they just made it accessable by putting it on the PC.
        Actully they did make it better too, with a wheel and more buttons.

        Oh, yeah they did create Win NT from scratch!

        I wish the Linux community would see software and making it easy for any moron to develop it, is what could make Linux successful.
        Brian G
        • Yikes!

          Apple had done all of these things, (except NT) long before the PC was thought of!

          As for NT, that was just a rip off of DEC's VMS operating system. Microsoft got that by hiring away the main VMS programmer from DEC.

          Again as asked....Name one innovation by Microsoft.
          linux for me
    • <Snicker> Folks Like You Are Apt to Snicker

      But he did see an opportunity, and rightly pushed it without knowing what it would be used for, and it turned out to be the platform for the biggest single change in technology since the advent of the PC itself. So snicker away, you allowed all the smugness you think you deserve. But that doesn't make your position right, not by a long shot.
      josh@...
      • He got 50 billion more things right

        then the rst of us did. :)
        AllKnowingAllSeeing
        • Yup, lying, cheating, stealing, anti-competitve practices,

          predatory monopolistic practices, the list goes on and on.

          At least he managed to hold computing back by a number of years though, and created for the West a bunch of lazy where do I click mouse wielding wannabees as techies.
          fr0thy2
      • So back up your claims

        OK Josh, you are claiming in your "piece" (a good word for
        it, btw) that Gates had the foresight to see that the
        Internet/WWW was going to be the next big thing. You are
        either wrong, or you can't write a convincing piece. I still
        stand by my point: BG was THE man at Microsoft at the
        time. He could make all the employees stand on their
        heads to code if he wanted. He ruled with an iron fist at
        that time. Why then, if he knew the 'net/WWW was going to
        be big, did he and his collective not do Jack S. until every
        other company beat him to the punch? Is it because he
        was waiting until the time was right? No. Is it because he
        and Microsoft had better things to do? Doubt it. Is it
        because he really didn't have a clue about the net, and
        that your admittedly brief exchange with him was only BG
        showing his amazing foresight in your 20/20 hindsight
        vision looking back 25 years? Yep.

        I'm sorry if you are deluded into believing your own
        writings that somehow BG knew this was it. I have no
        doubt that you were there back then. But guess what - a
        whole lot of people, myself included, were around back
        then too. We all can recall pretty vividly how BG and
        Microsoft entirely missed the boat on this one, and it took
        years of time, lots of money, and a whole lot of illegal
        practices to get his first IE out the door to try to compete.

        You need to take off the rose colored glasses that you are
        looking in the past with and perhaps take a memory
        refresher, my friend. The story you describe makes for a
        good exit story, but it is far from accurate.
        winski
        • re-read the post, please

          And you'll see that I didn't credit Gates with foreseeing the Web, I credited him with have the prescience to push a multimedia PC WITHOUT knowing what the killer app would finally end up being. Sorry I went over your head, my friend.
          josh@...
          • Sorry (not)

            "Instead of being present at another worthless press
            conference, I had been present at one of the key
            conceptual moments in the future of computing ? the
            World Wide Web ? and Bill Gates had, once again called it
            right, despite himself."

            I guess it is my fault for expecting an online author for
            ZDNet to be able to write a clear and concise article. The
            sentence above states that your meeting with Gates was
            "one of the key conceptual moments in the future of
            computing - the World Wide Web". It was nothing of the
            sort.

            Perhaps you can find an online writing course.
            winski
          • And check out the heading

            I'm assuming the editor thought so as well.

            Winski is right, and josh wrong again, Gates saw nothing in
            the WWW and had to be brought kicking and screaming
            into the realisation it was going to be something. Of course
            this meant MS had to destroy some new competitors (their
            only contribution to IT).

            But this is ZDNet, where the uninformed MS fanboy is
            celebrated by the lemmings.
            Richard Flude
  • RE: My 15 minutes with Bill Gates, and how the Web was born

    I grew up in the computing business when hardware was all and software was just a way to make the hardware work. There were no real "software" companies. You couldn't even patent software because it was just considered an idea.

    I made the bold statement to dozens of my close associates that someone would make software a business and the people in it rich. A year later an editor from EDN said he mentioned my statement to this guy he shared a podium with during the soup and salad course. The guy, Bill Gates said he agreed whole heartedly. And did it.

    I do not give Mr. Gates the mantle of inventor of the software business, but he sure gets to wear the hat that says he commercialized it. And that has made all the difference in our software-connected world.
    TomMariner
  • Irony is Hard Sometimes

    And I'm sorry you missed the key phrase: "despite himself." Gates had no idea what he was doing, any more than Einstein knew that Hiroshima would be the results of his efforts. But E=MC2 is a foundational moment in modern nuclear warfare, despite its creator's ignorance of the future impact of his discovery. Similarly, on a much smaller scale, Gates helped create the Web, even if he had no idea that it was coming.
    josh@...
    • Absolutely not!

      Examples please on how BG had anything whatsoever to do
      with the creation of the Web. Einstein directly helped advance
      our nuclear science, which in turn did help create the atomic
      bomb. There is not one piece of the web which Bill Gates,
      directly or indirecly, created - or even contributed to.

      BG gets a lot of credit for what he's done in the world of PCs,
      but any credit for any part of the web is not something he
      deserves.
      winski
      • Agreed. In fact I remember some quote

        sometime around the release of the first revision of his book along the lines of :
        "we'd like people to think of it as the Microsoft network".

        That just about sums up the Microsoft mentality full stop.
        fr0thy2