Bill Gates' Legacy: Winning Through Intimidation

Bill Gates and Microsoft are the quintessential American success story; too bad they didn't play fair.

John Soat, Contributor

June 22, 2007

3 Min Read

Off The Radar
By now, many people are willing to consider Gates' past indiscretions as just that. "Personally, it doesn't hit my radar screen anymore, the whole government antitrust deal," says Dave Robinson, CIO of Lockton, a billion-dollar insurance brokerage. For him, Microsoft simply did what it had to do in standardizing the software industry. "Whether they did that intentionally or illegally, it worked to the advantage of the customer," he says. And, of course, to Bill Gates.

There are parallels in American culture. In her popular and still well-regarded 1904 book, The History Of The Standard Oil Company, muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell wrote: "I never had an animus against their size and wealth, never objected to their corporate form. I was willing that they should combine and grow as big and wealthy as they could, but only by legitimate means. They had never played fair, and that ruined their greatness for me."

Gates is popularly characterized as a nerd, a brainiac with underdeveloped social skills, but in person he's more than that--surprisingly charming and genuinely inquisitive. "He's still one of the only business leaders in the world that's asked me questions when I've met him in both social and business contexts," says Robert Scoble, an industry blogger and former Microsoft employee.

He's also a bully, known for his short-tempered belligerence with employees and others. I encountered that myself, at a conference in the early 1990s when I asked him for his response to a story about a group of Asian PC manufacturers objecting to Microsoft's restrictive licensing policies, in retrospect a precursor to the first Justice Department investigation. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," he said dismissively.

Gates is responsible for Microsoft's win-at-all-costs culture, says Paul Cormier, executive VP of engineering for Linux distributor Red Hat and a 20-year software industry veteran. But that influence may be waning. There are people inside the company now, Cormier says, "who are starting not to like Microsoft's reputation as a vicious, competitive monster."

If so, that change may take awhile. In a scenario startlingly reminiscent of another of history's great bullies, Sen. Joe McCarthy, who in 1950 waved a piece of paper during a West Virginia speech that he claimed contained the names of 205 communists at work in the State Department, Steve Ballmer claimed last month in an interview with Fortune magazine that Linux and other open source software violate 235 of Microsoft's software patents. It's of a piece with Bill Gates' guiding principle: Win through intimidation, not innovation.

Will that be Bill Gates' legacy? Probably not. "Most people will remember the philanthropic efforts, how he spends his money," says Filipowski, "much more than they'll remember how he got it in the first place."

Bill Gates could have been a software hero. But he didn't play fair, and that ruined his greatness.

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Bill Gates' Legacy: Outmaneuvering The Competition View the timeline:
Bill Gates' Legacy

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