Bill Gates and PC history

With Bill Gates stepping down from his day-to-day role of running Microsoft, he's been receiving a great number of accolades about the role he played in history of the PC. Much of it is deserved. But some of it definitely ignores the reality of how the PC industry evolved and the effect that Bill Gates and Microsoft had, for good and bad, on technology innovation.

At the Microsoft farewell to Gates l

With Bill Gates stepping down from his day-to-day role of running Microsoft, he's been receiving a great number of accolades about the role he played in history of the PC. Much of it is deserved. But some of it definitely ignores the reality of how the PC industry evolved and the effect that Bill Gates and Microsoft had, for good and bad, on technology innovation.

At the Microsoft farewell to Gates last week, successor Steve Ballmer is quoted as saying: "Bill was really there at the birth of the modern personal computer. Bill really designed the IBM PC. That's my non-revisionist history." Ballmer is unquestionably right about Gates being there from the earliest days with his implementation of Basic for the Altair 8800. And that was in and of itself a significant contribution.

Nonetheless, Ballmer is definitely revising history when he says Gates was responsible for the IBM PC revolution. That honor belongs to the late Don Estridge of IBM. If Estridge had not taken the very radical step at that time of going with an open architecture for the IBM PC - with off-the-shelf and non-IBM software - and if he hadn't convinced his superiors at IBM to go along with the idea, computing history would be extremely different. As talented as Gates is, he might very well have played an important role anyway, but without Estridge it's unlikely Microsoft would have even gotten into the OS business.

Once Microsoft got the contract from IBM for DOS (which originally stood for Dirty Operating System, since it was a blatant rip-off of the CP/M operating system), Gates deserves lots of credit for taking the ball and running with it. Dylan Tweney in Wired puts it very well when he says that Microsoft's eventual monopoly was essential to the development in creating "a de facto standard that permitted thousands of software and hardware companies to blossom." And we can all be thankful actually that Gates created that monopoly, because the alternative would have been an IBM monopoly. And as much as geeks loved IBM's OS/2 in comparison to Windows, IBM's proprietary outlook had reasserted itself even before Estridge's death in a plane crash. And with all the baggage IBM brought in terms of how it wanted the client-server world to work, it's a good thing that Gates was able to maneuver so very deftly to beat Big Blue in that fight. One has to wonder if anybody else could have pulled it off.

But since the introduction Windows 3.0 almost two decades ago, Microsoft's real innovations have been in ways to stifle competition. Gates did a little history revision himself in this regard in his farewell, saying "When we got it right, betting on graphics interface, even though we told our competitors that they should (do it) and tried to get them to do it, they didn't. By the time it was clear that it was a mistake, they were in deep trouble because we had done the work and we were there."

This of course ignores the fact that the graphics interface Microsoft was telling its competitors to use was OS/2, long after it had committed to Windows. And it also ignores the fact that Microsoft kept some of the operating system calls its own applications used secret. But, in the end, none of that really mattered. Lotus, Word Perfect, Borland, etc. were dead meat anyway once Microsoft radically slashed software prices with the introduction of the Office suite. With the cash cow of the operating system behind it, Microsoft was inevitably going to win no matter what the relative merits of its competitors' products to its own.

As CEO of a public company, it certainly was Gates' job to beat the competition anyway he could. But I think the real measure of Microsoft's impact on innovation in the Windows era is how few next-big-thing software ideas have emerged over these years. One is web browsers, and we all know what Microsoft did to Netscape there. Another is search, in which Google has escaped Netscape's fate only because along with a building mousetrap they came up with a better way of making money with it. And then there's Linux and Open Source, the very existence of which I think demonstrates how confining Microsoft's embrace on the industry has been.

Bill Gates deserves all kinds of praise because his impact on the software industry and technology in general has been enormous. But let's not revise history to pretend that his influence has been all to the good.

What do you think has been the effect of Bill Gates on technology innovation? Post your comments below or write me at Foster@gripe2ed.com.