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I read with great interest last week that William H. Gates III, Founder and Chairman of the Board of Microsoft (aka Emperor Palpatine of the Evil Empire) was stepping down from day to day operations at the company over the next yearto concentrate on work at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With this change, a great age of computing is likely coming to an end. Like John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil before him, the names Gates and Microsoft will be forever associated in the public mind, but other hands will be at the rudder.
Perhaps this is a good and necessary thing. With Linux, Firefox, and Google nipping at Microsoft's heels in recent years, the once nimble and ruthless 500 pound gorilla of the software industry seems to be, well, fat and bloated. It's share price is flat, and word is that its workers feel clearly divided to "haves" (those who got options in "the old days") and "have nots" (those who didn't.) It's next operating system product, Windows Vista, is two years late, even after some of its most advanced features were stipped away. The company dodged the bullet of an anti-trust decree that would have split it up, only to become management heavy and dedicated to the proposition that it absolutely must compete in every innovative sector of the computer software industry (music, search, games, internet service provider, databases, business applications, research, etc...) even when it does so badly.
All this makes me think back to seeing interviews with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer for Robert X. Cringely's The Triumph of the Nerds: The Rise of Accidental Empires back in 1996. With Microsoft riding high on the success of Windows 95 and Microsoft Office 95, Mr. Gates and Mr. Ballmer seem to have nothing but contempt for the company then-billed as their greatest rival: IBM. IBM was big, slow, and heavy they said, and unable to compete in the rapidly changing Internet Age. IBM just didn't get the new commodity computer paradigm. IBM was the company that Microsoft should absolutely, positively never be.
Well, guess what? I believe it only took Microsoft about ten years to become a company very much like IBM. Maybe it was the anti-trust suit, or the installation of Steve Ballmer as CEO, or the general recognition of Microsoft's guerilla-gorilla business tactics, but Microsoft drank some of the IBM Kool Aid and changed. Middle managers and lines of business multiplied. Opportunities to dominate with an iron hand merely became opportunities to compete using a big check book. Welcome to a long tenure in the Fortune 500, Microsoft... and middle age.
Yet for even all that accomplishment, I still feel contempt for the Evil Empire. Unlike IBM and Apple, Microsoft is still a company of uncultured hackers. It brings little art to its field. IBM brought the world key innovations in everything from computer operating systems to relational databases to high temperature superconductors. Apple brought the world elegant interfaces and innovative concepts in everything from printing to man-machine interaction to digital music. Though it all, both these companies remained dedicated to different kinds of great ideas and the need for certain kinds of open standards. What is the great innovative achievement of Microsoft? Pretty icons and poorly documented programming interfaces.
Perhaps that is a more than a little snobbish when speaking about one of the real success stories of modern times. Microsoft did create the computing platform that will be known as the "Model T" of the personal computer age. But speaking as someone who grew up as an IBM brat, and spent much of the Internet Bubble in academia where Microsoft has few friends, I cannot say otherwise.
on 2006-06-19 at 5:08 p.m.
The Wayback Machine - To Infinity And Beyond