The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

17 June 2006

A three-finger salute

Bill Gates knows when to leave, says Jeff Jarvis:

Gates was merely the best businessman ever born. He was ruthless. But capitalism is ruthless. It is a system. And it is that system — not his operating systems — that made Gates so damned big. Gates was not an inventor and innovator and I'll argue that — his prognosticating books aside — he was no visionary. He was an exploiter. His first product was another version of the Basic programming language. His master stroke was taking the essence of a now-forgotten operating system called CP/M and turning it into MS-DOS, the neurology of the personal-computer revolution. He took the tool that truly created the technology age, VisiCalc — the spreadsheet that let business people ask "what if?", which is what put computers on every office desk in the world — and turned it into Excel, part of his Office suite that also included Word, which itself was really just an adaptation of WordStar. He took the art of the Apple Lisa and Mac and turned it into the clumsy painting-on-velvet, Windows. Gates took others' innovations and turned them into products and profits. Every great invention needs a business genius to bring it to market. For software, that was Gates.

But then came the internet, the great invention that by its very open essence defies productization. In spite of government fears in the U.S. and the EU — and try as he might — Gates couldn't take it over and exploit it. This was not his only failure. Gates tried to become a media mogul — in a local listings service, in a news magazine, in a TV network, and in a web portal — but that eluded him. In an era when everyone can now master media, Gates could not. So perhaps this is indeed the end of the Gates era. And if anyone is smart and ruthless enough to know that, it's probably Gates.

While going through the stacks last night, I found a manual for MS-DOS 3.3 (1987). I'm pretty sure that it doesn't qualify as any sort of cultural artifact, but it does, I think, add to Gates' rep as Perennial Looming Presence. Still, it wasn't a presence that awed anyone: by now everybody knows the joke about how if Microsoft built cars, they would run only on MS-GAS, and they would crash twice a day for no apparent reason.

Today, old business models are crumbling into dust. If Bill Gates is getting out when the getting is good, he's maintaining his edge; there are plenty of the walking dead (the phone company, the music industry, and Old Media generally) whose transition and/or exit strategies haven't even been imagined yet.

Update, 7 pm, 18 June: Jon Swift explains why this is no big deal:

Although Bill Gates announced that he would be retiring in two years, there are sure to be delays in the transition schedule and the date of his retirement will probably be postponed many times. In fact, it may never happen at all.

It is also possible that Gates may be retired prematurely before all the bugs are worked out. Microsoft may decide to go through a retirement beta testing phase to work out these bugs. Even when Gates does officially retire, there may still be problems, so he may be forced to announce his Retirement 2.0, although you can be sure new problems will then crop up, some of which, but not all, will be fixed in the Second Edition of Retirement 2.0, followed by some patches.

Another Genuine Advantage from Redmond.

Posted at 10:15 AM to Dyssynergy

Yet another indicator that Jarvis doesn't know what he's talking about. For one thing, Microsoft did not cobble MS-DOS up out of CP/M's concepts or philosophy; they acquired it from another company, Seattle Computer Products, and then started re-engineering it to make it as UNIX-like as possible while retaining the simplicity and ease of installation that characterized microcomputer OSs at that time. Nor was Word an adaptation of WordStar; the two programs are exceedingly different in both their philosophy and architecture of document structure and management.

Yes, Gates did try to proprietize Internet communications, in two ways: with Internet Explorer's extensions of HTML, and with the Visual J++ product. One has had some success, though it was eventually supplanted by XHTML-based specifications, but the other failed completely and is no longer available. But how does that compare to Gates's decree that all Microsoft applications programs shall interoperate on one another's artifacts, that they shall all be externally user-programmable, and that their UPLs shall be lexically and syntactically identical? How does it compare to Windows's smashing success at self-configuration on innumerable hardware platforms, a feat never even attempted by an OS vendor before? How does it compare to Microsoft's invention and promulgation of "plug and play" interfaces, such as the USB interface that now rules the external storage media of the world?

The small minded are easily detected by the way they speak of the accomplishments of others: disparagingly, always disparagingly.

Posted by: Francis W. Porretto at 5:29 AM on 18 June 2006

DOS never struck me as that Unix-like, but the point is taken. And while I did work with WordStar once upon a time — there are a handful of CP/M machines in my past — I'm not so familiar with Word that I could compare notes between the two. (When I moved into the PC orbit, I adopted Ami Pro as my word processor of choice, and stayed with it after its absorption by Lotus.)

As for the Windows hardware model, I am always impressed when it works (and disturbed on those occasions when it fails). The anti-Gates crowd, and I'm not quite sure Jarvis is a founding member, would simply dismiss whatever successes were achieved, as though a serial killer had won Lawn of the Month for two whole quarters.

Posted by: CGHill at 8:27 AM on 18 June 2006