Digital World: Friend of Bill

For many people, Bill Gates and his company, Microsoft, represent the worst in computing.

bill gates 88 298 (photo credit: Bloomberg)
bill gates 88 298
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
As you may have heard, Bill is retiring this week. Gates, that is - the other Bill (Clinton) hasn't been around for some eight years now. As such, I thought it would be appropriate to look back at Bill Gate's contributions to the computer industry. For many people, the man and his company, Microsoft, represent the worst in computing. Even "Windows fans" acknowledge that MS has often been accused (perhaps not unjustly) of copying innovations from other companies, and pushing around smaller companies and consumers to corner the market in a variety of areas. For a demonstration, just do a side by side comparison of Mac OS X and Windows Vista (as David Pogue of the New York Times did at Microsoft has been investigated and sued for anti-trust violations in more cases and more places than perhaps any other company in modern history - and where there's that much smoke, there's got to be at least a little fire. And they can't even come up with a decent copy of the stuff they're ripping off, the critics say; Windows throughout its life span has often been notoriously unstable, and thanks to the Windows Registry and the million and one ways it can be manipulated, Microsoft basically created the computer virus business. Dissatisfaction with Vista is so high that many new computer buyers opt for the seven year old Windows XP instead of the "latest technology" Vista version of Windows (beginning this week, the only version of Windows you can buy on a new laptop is Vista, with MS now requiring customers to 'upgrade'). Microsoft has traditionally done everything it can to discourage open source systems and software use and development. Recently, the company has become a bit more open to working with open source developers, but it's still doing its best to hold on to its old attitudes ( What emerges is a picture of a company - and, by extension, a man, as Gates is so closely identified with Microsoft - that at best bumbles through, using less than wholesome tactics to retain its market position. You can't blame a company for wanting to make money, of course, but Gates has more than enough (about $65 billion, according to You'd think he would give a little "back to the people" - not only in cash donations to charitable causes (, but to the computing public, where he made so much of his money. I could go on and on, but you get the picture; here is a man who is hated by many. Even the people who admire him don't necessarily like him as a person, it seems. Now, I don't want to give the wrong impression here: I am not a friend of Bill (not Gates, nor even Clinton). I don't know him, personally or otherwise. But it seems to me that a positive word is due to this man, flaws and all, who really has had a major impact on computing today. Below are some of the accusations hurled at Gates, and why in my very humble opinion, they don't apply. Bill Gates is a robber baron; in the manner of railroad and banking barons of yore, Gates quashed the competition to get ahead, and rigged the system to keep his company on top. That, at least, is the received history. But if you want to blame anyone for Windows' dominance, blame IBM (, which allowed MS to sell versions of DOS to other PC manufacturers. In fact, according to this article, Gates would have been perfectly happy to make a deal with IBM on his basic computer language. It was only when that deal fell through that IBM sought Gate's help on building an operating system. It's hard to imagine any business willingly giving up its customer base - you were expecting MS not to try and convert customers from MS-DOS to Windows 3.1, then to Windows 95, 2000, XP, and so on? As Gates said in a 1995 Time Magazine interview, "If you're accusing me of competition, then yes. You have to decide. Are we optimized to help competitors, or are we optimized to help customers?" ( When people say that Windows "ripped off" its OS from Apple or other companies (most notably Xerox's PARC system, which Apple itself is accused of ripping off), they mean that Microsoft stole the idea of a GUI (graphical user interface), using icons, drop down menus, and other visual interfaces to interact with a computer OS. On the surface, it would seem to be a legitimate charge. DOS was as text-based an OS as you could get, and Apple's Lisa and Mac systems preceded the release of Windows in any form, as demonstrated by the timeline at However, the timeline indicates that there were a number of other GUI systems on the market. And while today MS is accused of having stolen its GUI ideas from Apple, at the dawn of graphics interfaced OS systems it wasn't Microsoft that Apple had a problem with - it was Digital Research's GEM system that ripped off the Mac's "look and feel." It was only several years later, with the introduction of Windows 2.0, that Apple targeted Microsoft ( The point is that clearly GUI work was not being done in a vacuum in the mid-1980s. Today, of course, the arena of who took what from whom has expanded significantly, as the New York Times link above demonstrates. Let's say that historically, as well as today, the various operating systems (today that would be Mac OS X, Windows XP/Vista, and Linux Guis) are "derivative," meaning that one looks at the other and attempts to duplicate a good idea - much like car manufacturers do when they add new features to new models. Windows is buggy, prone to virus infection, etc. I have never worked for MS, and have never been within 500 miles of its headquarters in Washington. So I'm really not in a position to comment on the company's culture. For example, some have tried to link the preponderance of viruses for Windows to some factors in the company's methods of work and research (being reactive instead of innovative and fighting last month's battles instead of looking forward). Others say that it's to be expected, since hackers seeking to inflict damage will aim for the OS used by 90 percent of the market - Windows - in order to wreak the most havoc. One thing that is clear about Microsoft, or any other large corporation: It's not a startup, where you can run through experimental ideas on the dime of a VC angel. MS has a responsibility to its stockholders and clients, and accusations like "they don't innovate, just duplicate" have to be seen in this context. Knowing their clients, it would probably be irresponsible for MS to put IT managers in the position of trying some new, little tested innovation just because engineers in the company believe in it. In other words, you would expect nothing less than a conservative approach to the computing field from a company the size of MS. Which brings us back to Gates. Say what you want about him, but it takes a lot of talent and innovation to build a Microsoft. Now that he's free of the restrictions of the CEO's desk, he might really surprise us, and come up with a very non-corporate innovation. He's certainly got the money to invest in his ideas. Like good old Colonel Sanders (, retirement could be the next big career move for Bill Gates!