Saturday, June 28, 2008

Bye, Bill. A fond remembrance

On this final day of Bill Gates' salaried employ at the company he founded, we recall a period of history way, way back -- an era when Gates was one giant among many, and just as likely to survive the shakeout as any other.

The computing industry was built by brilliant people with colorful personalities and extraordinary talent. We have forgotten most of them. Chuck Peddle, Adam Osborne, Clive Sinclair, Federico Faggin, Les Solomon, Gary Kildall...these are among the names we knew by heart and often knew personally, for those of us who grew up with the dawn of the computing era. We knew these people often because we had met them in person -- during the first computer conferences, they were part of our second family, even if they only showed up in name only.

From that great family of pioneers, only two names remain prominent in the public conscience: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Somehow without there being a ubiquitous Internet, without Wi-Fi hot spots, without e-mail addresses, and with no IM handles or Facebook pages, we were all connected if by only a few degrees of separation. We really didn't need an Internet in the late '70s and early '80s, at least not yet. We were all on the same wavelength.

What Bill Gates has become in the minds of Americans and of citizens of the world -- number one or two on the table of rich people, the voice and principal representative of one of this country's few, unthreatened large companies -- bears only a passing resemblance to what Bill Gates meant to those of us growing up with what we originally called "microcomputers," especially to those who were very near his age. He looked, dressed, and acted like one of us, with off-the-rack shirts with wide collars and paisley patterns, unkempt hair, the occasional ketchup stain on his trousers or even his cheek, and the voice of the kid who was never quite ready to give his oral report for history class that day.

Bill Gates was not overwhelmingly smart. But he had two magnificent talents which would deliver him to the right place and the right time in history -- talents for which today he is rarely appreciated. First, he had an absolute gift for seeing patterns and perfecting them mathematically. His first great accomplishment is the very type of product for which Microsoft today is raked over the coals for its incapability to produce: interoperable computer code for a processing system across multiple microprocessors, the first interoperable BASIC language. (Perhaps Kildall was the first to seize upon this idea and market it with CP/M, but Gates was probably the first to actually accomplish the feat.)

Second, he was and is an extremely shrewd manipulator of people. For the last quarter-century and to this day, Gates is called upon to prognosticate about the future, even though his track record on this skill is actually below average. His first printing of The Road Ahead failed to integrate the Internet into his vision of the future. In fact, Gates' real skill has been to package a magnification of the present as a vision of the future -- not a direction or an evolution, but a projection of an obvious current trend into a future scenario.

Bye, Bill. A fond remembrance

An ad that appeared on page 7 of Creative Computing magazine, March 1981. Here you can see the Microsoft strategy in its earliest stages: 1) Associate Microsoft with the name brands everyone already uses and recognizes; 2) Sell Microsoft as an extension of that name brand into the bigger business world -- a bigger world where real work gets done.

Here is a classic example from 24 years ago, from an article Gates wrote for the Tenth Anniversary Issue of the great magazine Creative Computing which, in the era before the Internet, represented the physical culmination of our hopes and dreams every month, by direct mail:

The first use of a microprocessor was to simplify a calculator; later, even the logic of the microprocessor was replaced with a microcode program on the microcomputer chip itself. Specialized word processors are being replaced by general purpose microcomputers.

I call this a trend toward "softness." Today we are talking about "writable control stores" in which the microcode in a microprocessor can be changed, allowing for specialization of the instruction to gain efficiency based on the specific problem being solved.

Even in software this trend has become obvious. Rather than build up from a bare machine, a general operating system is used to allow the specialized application to be simpler. The operating system is now evolving to include graphics, as in the Microsoft Windows system; multitasking; and higher level data management functions. This even further reduces the amount of work required to specialize a machine since all of the new subroutines in the operating system are available.

This trend toward general purpose devices may seem illogical, since a specialized device can be simplified and streamlined for its particular purpose. However, the benefits of this tuning are becoming increasingly outweighed by the extremely low cost of the general purpose device which is being sold in very high volume and the design of which is receiving the very best design expertise. Both hardware and software improve greatly when volume is high and the best talent is applied.

In the future, software packages will become even more general purpose as they remember all of the user's input and mold to his profile and communication techniques. Of course, this is a form of artificial intelligence, which is a very advanced form of "softness," since it attempts to create a device so general purpose that it can deal with a vast number of inputs and recognize important patterns.

There is no particular genius in that November 1984 prognostication. Rather, there was a shrewdness and an accuracy in recognizing the key direction of evolution of an industry and capitalizing upon it, especially while most everyone else was preoccupied with the notions of miniaturization and convergence -- two "MacGuffins," to borrow a Hitchcock term, in the family plot of computer history.

I will speak for myself for a moment: Bill Gates let me down in the 1990s and early 2000s, having let his shrewdness converge with his ambition, and in the process having cast his other true talent aside. He led Microsoft in a dangerous direction that I couldn't accept, and he lost me as a follower.

Bye, Bill. A fond remembrance

But I don't believe that path cannot be corrected, and certainly I'm seeing evidence that his company is taking genuine steps to remedy the grave mistakes it made at the height of the browser wars. I will not judge Gates' entire career or his contribution to this industry, or even to the world, by this unfortunate misstep. There was a day when I, and so many others who stood with me, considered him a genuine hero -- someone who injected a much-needed dose of business sense into an industry that had many great luminaries, an overdose of visionaries, but almost no one who had a true sense of which direction was "forward."

And however the world will judge him, his and his wife's contribution to the effort to eradicate disease from Africa and from the world, makes up for any and all business injustices he may have triggered, initiated, led, or inspired in an effort to retain Microsoft's dominant position in software.

Sometimes I judge a person's true contribution to history by imagining the world without him or her. Subtract Steve Jobs from the world, and the microcomputer would have had a much tougher time finding its home in our lives...but still, I believe, it could have happened. Maybe five or ten years later, but we would have made it. Subtract Bill Gates from the world, and I sincerely believe that instead of freely using our choice of brands of computers on the worldwide Internet, you and I would be complaining openly about our monthly timesharing bill, which we would owe without fail to IBM, AT&T, DEC, Sperry, or some awful conglomeration of them all -- a much larger and more oppressive force than Microsoft ever was or could ever become.

So from one person who remembers the beginning of it all, and who stood proudly with others at the top of what was then the highest mountain...Thank you, Bill, and Godspeed.

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