Bill Gates and Microsoft--they're essentially one and the same--are the great American success story. The company employs tens of thousands of people, its software is used by millions, and it's a shining example of technological leadership. In that context, speaking ill of Bill is almost un-American.
So how do you get a clear-eyed view of Gates' legacy? In researching this article, it became apparent that some industry veterans weren't interested in offering candid assessments of him. Oracle declined to comment, as did former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, one of Microsoft's most vocal detractors throughout his career. McNealy's administrative assistant said he "doesn't like to comment negatively or positively" on Bill Gates. When I told her I was having a hard time finding people willing to voice strong opinions about Gates, she replied, "Nobody wants to be put in that position."
Well, not nobody. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce .com, stuck his head up to say Gates "will be remembered for developing the technology and business models and strategy to allow Microsoft to have a monopoly position on the PC while generating enough revenue to make him the richest man in the world."
Genius In Predation
Certainly, Gates' greatest legacy won't be in terms of technological innovation. He didn't invent the operating system, didn't invent the word processor, didn't invent the graphical user interface, and didn't invent the Web browser. And neither did anyone else at Microsoft.
"Its genius has been in business and predation, not innovation," wrote Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and Kenneth Starr, the Whitewater prosecutor, in a Wall Street Journal editorial in July 2001. They were talking about Microsoft, but they might as well have been talking about Gates.
The story of how Gates leveraged IBM's desperate need for a PC operating system into a billion-dollar business is a case study in carpe diem, a Horatio Alger-style tale of pluck and luck. But even that story is tainted with the underhanded business dealings over the years that have led to myriad lawsuits and two Justice Department investigations.
In 1980, Gates assured IBM execs that, along with his programming language, Basic, he had an operating system for its fledgling PC effort. He didn't, so he turned around and bought QDOS, a knockoff (to put it mildly) of the most popular PC operating system of the day, CP/M, for $50,000, from a small company called Seattle Computer Products, without informing its owner that he was negotiating with IBM.
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