Thursday, March 26, 1998

Bill Gates: The Man Behind The Myth

I wrote this research paper for my English 121 class through the New Hampshire College Off Campus Program.

"The feats I've done over my time meant nothing for I've stood on shoulders of giants."
-Sir Isaac Newton

When a verbal portrait of Bill Gates is painted, it's usually with words like: "Visionary" and "Innovator." Are they true? Visionary? Yes. It takes a man of vision to accomplish some of the things that Bill Gates has accomplished. But is he an innovator? No. Bill Gates' success has little if anything to do with his or even Microsoft's ability to write software. His success can more easily be attributed to good timing, marketing acumen and a little luck.

Bill Gates was born outside Seattle, Washington in 1955. The child of socially prominent parents, he was first introduced to computers at the prestigious Lakeside School in Seattle in the late 1960s (Gates, 1). His interest in computers and programming continued into his teens and his first years at Harvard. It was during this period, that the first micro-processors capable of controlling "microcomputers" were invented. In 1975, Gates and his friend, Paul Allen, dropped out of college to form a company committed to writing software for these microcomputers. They called it Microsoft (Gates, 17).

In the beginning, all Microsoft did was write versions of the BASIC programming language for all the new micro and personal computers that were becoming popular in the late 1970s. (Machines like the Altair, the Apple II and the TRS-80.) The most successful of these computer companies was Apple Computer, Inc. which dominated the personal computer market until the early 1980s. Apple lost a great deal of its business to IBM and dozens of other computer manufacturers making IBM compatible, or clone, computers. One of the key decisions that contributed to the success of the IBM PC was the decision to use "off the shelf" components in both hardware and software. When the original IBM PC was sold, it came with the Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS). But this choice raises some interesting questions.

When it came to big mainframe computers, IBM was the premiere company with over 80% of the mainframe market. Personal computers, however, were the things of electronics hobbyists. IBM saw the business potential of these new devices and felt that embracing an open standard was the quickest way to get a machine on the market with their logo. They approached Microsoft in 1980 to discuss writing an operating system for their machine and purchased the royalty-free right to use MS-DOS for a one time fee of $80,000. This was a shrewd move on the part of Bill Gates who would see MS-DOS quickly become an industry standard with the strength of IBM's reputation solidly behind it (Gates, 54). What most people seem to forget, however, is that Microsoft was still a very small company. It wasn't even incorporated until 1981, the same year that IBM introduced its personal computer. On top of that it was run by a 24-year-old college drop out. Why would a multi-billion dollar company like IBM approach the likes of Bill Gates, let alone bet its reputation on him coming through in time to deliver their PC? John Opel, a top executive at IBM at the time, served on the national board of United Way. This, in and of itself is not unusual, but there was one other member of the board that may have had some influence in IBM's decision to go with Bill Gates and Microsoft. (A woman by the name of Mrs. Mary Gates. Bill's mother.) It could be just a coincidence; it has been rumored in the industry that Mrs. Gates may have mentioned her son's venture to Opel. Though there's no smoking gun, one thing is for sure: Opel, who is now retired, won't talk about it (Wallace & Erickson, 189).

Another question that comes to mind is when exactly did Microsoft go from writing BASIC to writing operating systems? Well, they didn't. DOS was not originally a Microsoft product. They had actually bought an operating system from Seattle Computer Products called QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System), which was in turn an imitation of another operating system called C/PM. Microsoft also hired Seattle Computer Products' top programmer and, together, worked some programming magic and christened their new OS baby MS-DOS (Gates, 53). This was, undeniably, Microsoft's and Bill Gates' first big success.

The next major "breakthrough" for the company was an upgrade to DOS that looked like a revolution. The majority of computers sold today run Microsoft's Windows 95 operating system. As its name infers, it was introduced in 1995 with much hype, fanfare and blatant commercialism. People were lining up outside of software stores to buy this piece of software like rock and roll fans line up for concert tickets. A concert that over forty million other people already saw... twelve years earlier and conceived even earlier than that.

In 1973, Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC) developed what can truly be called the first computer with a Graphical User Interface (GUI) designed to be operated by a single user. This computer was called the Alto and used a system sometimes referred to as WIMP. An acronym for "Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer." It was controlled with the ubiquitous computer keyboard and a strange looking device with three buttons called a mouse. Because of the high cost of development, Xerox never sold it. PARC was a kind of technological playground where anything goes even if it would cost too much to market. So, the Alto remained unnoticed by the outside world until 1979 when Steve Jobs and Bill Atkinson of Apple computer paid a visit and were inspired (Linzmayer, 60).

On January 19, 1983, Apple introduced the first commercially available computer with a graphical user interface. It was called the Lisa, having kept its company code name. Commercially, the Lisa was not very successful. It was overpriced and underpowered but the technology that it used set the stage for a major change in the way people worked with computers (Linzmayer, 69). And it was something that Bill Gates took notice of. Ten months later, he announced the development of a graphical user interface to be incorporated into DOS that was simply called "Windows" giving DOS users the same functionality of windows, icons, menus and a pointer controlled by a mouse. Two months later, the real revolution began when Apple introduced the Macintosh (Linzmayer, 264). (The first commercially successful computer with a graphical user interface.) Microsoft had worked closely with Apple in the Macintosh's development. The company wrote programs for the new platform, like Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel, and remains the number one developer of Macintosh software. This investment in time and money was a calculated move by Gates. He wanted the Macintosh to succeed. The more successful the Macintosh became, the more accepting people would be of using a graphical interface on a personal computer (Gates, 59). A year later, Microsoft released Windows 1.0 (Linzmayer, 247).

The Macintosh was Apple's proverbial ace up its sleeve. It saw IBM PCs and clones eating up its market share and it had to have a product that could really compete. In an interview in the February 1984 issue of Fortune , Steve Jobs said, "We're not going to sell five million [Macs] a year by being IBM compatible. We're going to do it by making a second industry standard." In the November 26 issue of BusinessWeek that same year, Bill Gates stated that "the next generation of interesting software will be done on the Macintosh, not the IBM PC." From that point on, if software developers wanted to reach an absolute majority of computer users, they developed their software for both the Macintosh and the IBM Personal Computer.

Prior to the release of Windows, Gates felt he was in a bit of a bind. He didn't want to be sued by Apple for making Windows look too much like the Mac so he played hardball by threatening to halt development of the successful (and very lucrative) programs Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel for the Macintosh if Apple sued. Gates and Apple's board knew that Microsoft wouldn't stop developing for the Mac. Microsoft was making a lot of money from Macintosh software, it always has, but Apple's CEO, at the time, John Sculley, was made of softer stuff and took Gates at his "word," hook, line and sinker even going so far as to sign an agreement virtually giving the Mac's interface to Microsoft in exchange for continued software development (which was never in fear of being lost to begin with.) (Linzmayer, 247).

It was after this fiasco that Gates really got cocky. Microsoft continued to develop Windows, now without fear of reprisal from Apple. Though Apple did try to sue Microsoft for copyright infringement, the courts dismissed Apple's case in part because of the 1985 Sculley agreement. Sculley would eventually leave Apple in 1993. Steve Jobs left the company in September of 1985 to start NeXT, Inc. In 1989 Jobs had complained about the similarity between Windows and the Macintosh. Bill Gates responded in the March 14 issue of MacWeek by saying, "Hey, Steve, just because you broke into Xerox's house and took the TV doesn't mean I can't go in later and take the stereo."

What's really ironic is that six years earlier, Apple succeeded in a lawsuit against Franklin Computer Corporation for copying Apple II technology to sell Apple II compatible systems. Bill Gates even wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times saying, "Imagine the disincentive to software development if after months of work another company could come along and copy your work and market it under its own name... Without legal restraints on such copying, companies like Apple could not afford to advance the state of the art."

Microsoft continued its development of Windows and in 1990 introduced version 3.0 of the operating system. It was far from being as easy to use as the Macintosh but it was given the blessed description of "good enough" by many business and home users to upgrade. Meanwhile, the Macintosh was maturing into a full 32-bit OS with System 7 and was still a graphical system from the ground up unlike DOS based Windows.

In 1995, Windows 4.0 was released. By this time, Microsoft had done away with version numbers. It would now name its products by the year in which they were introduced just like the automotive industry. With the release of Windows 95, through all the fanfare and the hype, there was still a voice in Apple computer. They bought multi-page ads in national magazines that said, in part: "Introducing Windows 95. It lets you use more than eight characters to name your files. It has a trash can you can open and take things out of again. It lets you drop files anywhere you want on the desktop. Imagine that." and on the following page: "In short, it makes a PC more like a Macintosh--you know, the Macintosh we built back in 1984." The ads went on to discuss numerous advantages that the Macintosh still had over Windows. But regardless of this and similar ads, Microsoft's operating system, which blatantly becomes more and more like a Macintosh with every release, secured Microsoft's place in the home and business market. (Leaving Apple to scramble to retain at least a respectable niche.)

In 1994, a little company called Mosaic Communications was formed. Their function: designing software for use on the internet. (Software for hosting web sites, networking businesses and, most importantly, selling a little program called "Navigator.") Navigator was a web browser, designed to let computer users easily "navigate" the complex and graphical world of the internet. The company soon changed its name to Netscape Communications and rose in popularity so quickly that it took Bill Gates completely by surprise.

Gates, at the time, felt that the internet was just too complicated for home users. He was certain that the future connectivity of personal computers would be through so called on-line services like America On-Line, Prodigy, CompuServe and the fledgling, albeit unoriginal, Microsoft Network. But he soon realized that in order for Microsoft to continue to succeed, he would have to bet the whole company on the internet, and he would start... with somebody else's idea.

Microsoft started by developing a web browser of their own called, "Internet Explorer." Like Netscape's Navigator, it was based on a program called Mosaic, which was written by Marc Andreeson. Andreeson went on to found Mosaic Communications and the rest, as they say, is history. The first versions of Internet Explorer didn't have all the bells and whistle's that Navigator had matured to, but it did fill two basic needs: It was functional and it didn't cost anything. In an attempt to make up for lost time in the development of a browser, Bill Gates decided that his customers would want a browser with fewer features, as long as they didn't have to pay for it.

Microsoft then got into a game of technological leapfrog with Netscape. (Each company racing to have the newest and best features in their browsers.) As Microsoft got closer and closer to full compatibility with Netscape's browser, it gained in market share. Unfortunately, the browser war between these two companies has resulted in a stalemate that only pains the end user. When each browser offers features the other lacks it creates an environment where open standards are no longer the rule. It was hoped that the internet would be a neutral zone where all platforms, Windows, Macintosh, Unix, etc., could freely communicate with each other. But Bill Gates' desire to control even the platform agnostic internet has resulted in stalled development of the language of the internet and herding of even more users to his already dominant operating system.

When we step back and take in the big picture, we see that the course Bill Gates and Microsoft has taken over the last two decades has largely been reactionary. Sure, Gates can throw around words like "innovation" and "state of the art" but rarely does that innovation actually come from Microsoft. Bill Gates has been very good at keeping his eyes open to new trends, jumping right on top of them and taking control. He did it with the personal computer, he did it with the graphical OS and, after almost missing the paradigm shift, he saw it in the internet. But, if I may paraphrase Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, "it didn't take any discipline on Microsoft's part to make these products. Gates read and saw what others were doing and he took the next step (sometimes backwards). They didn't earn the knowledge for themselves so they don't take any responsibility for what are often third rate products. They stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as they could and before they had products that were even worth buying, they packaged it, slapped it in a shrink wrapped cardboard box and sold it!"

There's nothing wrong with competition. Competition is healthy. It breeds innovation and offers customers a choice. Competition in the style of Richard Branson and the Virgin Group is an excellent example of profitable and healthy competition. Branson knows that he'll never beat British Airways with Virgin Air. He knows he'll never beat Coke or Pepsi with Virgin Cola or any other major product that he adds his own spin to. He does it in the pure spirit of competition. He does it to keep the big guys on their toes. But when the object of competition is to drive others out of business, even when it means delivering an inferior product by whatever means necessary, then that company has moved beyond competition and into the unfair and unethical realm of a monopoly.

Microsoft's actions over the last several years have caught the attention of the United States Department of Justice. Especially in its attempts in trying to control the Internet. It unfairly used its market position as the dominant OS vendor to force computer resellers to use its web browser, Internet Explorer, over Netscape's Navigator. Microsoft's defense for this action, "Internet Explorer is not a program. It's a feature of the Windows operating system." Meanwhile, everyone who is running Internet Explorer on a Macintosh or Unix based computer is asking, "How is Internet Explorer on my machine a feature of an operating system I don't even use?"

By calling Microsoft an "Innovative company," Bill Gates does a great disservice to the real creators that inspired him. On the subject of innovation, Microsoft is a company that holds a total of 417 patents. Is that a lot? In the high tech industry, no! Apple Computer holds over 800 patents. IBM holds the world record in patents numbering in the tens of thousands. When it comes to innovation, Microsoft is small potatoes and Bill Gates is really nothing more than a clever showman. He needs competition to keep giving him new ideas. He needs Netscape, he needs Apple and he needs that unknown programmer working in a garage coming up with the next big thing because Bill Gates isn't clever enough to come up with it himself.

Works Cited

Gates, Bill. The Road Ahead . Penguin Books USA, Inc., New York, NY

pp. 1, 17, 53, 54, 59

Linzmayer, Owen W. The Mac Bathroom Reader . SYBEX Inc., Alameda, CA

pp. 60, 69, 247, 264

Wallace, James and Erickson, Jim. Hard Drive : Bill Gates and the Making of
the Microsoft Empire . Harperbusiness, New York, NY,

pp. 189

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