Why Is Gates Still Number One?

The tech rank-and-file rate Bill Gates as the most influential person in the history of IT. The question is -- why? And do CIOs see it differently?

John Soat, Contributor

November 12, 2007

3 Min Read

The tech rank-and-file rate Bill Gates as the most influential person in the history of IT. The question is -- why? And do CIOs see it differently?According to a news story last week by my colleague Thomas Claburn, a recent survey by the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), a tech industry trade group, ranked Bill Gate, Steve Jobs, and Michael Dell one, two, and three as the most influential people in IT over the past 25 years. The poll got 473 votes, said Claburn, mostly from people who have worked in the tech industry for at least three years.

Microsoft co-founder Gates got 84% of the vote; Jobs, CEO and co-founder of Apple, 73%; and Michael Dell, CEO and founder of Dell, 53%.

Is anybody else surprised by this? For one thing -- what happened to the Apple fanatics? Why didn't they push Steve Jobs over the top? If anybody can swing a vote, Apple's loyal fan base can. Rudolph Giuliani probably would do better pandering to Apple fans than to the fundamentalist right. For another thing -- Bill Gates? I mean, isn't he so, like, 10 years ago?

In contrast, Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux operating system, got less than half of the vote (47%), which put him in a tie for fourth place with Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

This leads me to wonder about the average age of the survey respondent. Also, do I detect a bias toward a technology businessperson who helped create the third-party industry for IT products? That, and that alone, explains Michael Dell coming in third on the list.

Here's more evidence that product strategy, rather than actual technology innovation, were the motivating factors:

Marc Andreesen, co-creator of the Mosaic Web browser (with Eric Bina) and the co-founder of Netscape, didn't make the list. Adding insult to that omission, CompTIA voters rated Internet Explorer (66%) as most influential technology product in the past 25 years, followed by Microsoft Word (56%) and Windows 95 (50%).

Apple's iPod and Microsoft Excel tied for fourth place among products (49%).

Ouch! When Word scores higher than the iPod, you know we're talking utilitarian computing rather than elegant tech.

Gates continues to be a person of fascination for the mainstream media. An interview with him is featured in Rolling Stone magazine's most recent issue, its 40th anniversary issue, as part of its "twenty-five interviews on the future of America and the world, with the artists, scientists, and leaders who helped shape our time."

To the question, what made you get into the computer industry? Gates answered this way:

People in the computing field had this fixed notion about what the computer could do and what it would cost. But because we were young, we took exponential improvement as a given. We said, "OK, let's think about computers that are infinitely cheap and infinitely fast." We got to build the computer that we ourselves wanted to use.

Tell me, is Windows Vista an example of exponential improvement? And when was the last time people in the computer industry took exponential improvement as a given from Microsoft? I'd say about 10 years ago, when Bill Gates was still influential.

I suspect that Bill Gates is simply still the most recognizable name in computing, and that innovators and influencers from IBM, AT&T, or other less prominent vendors don't make the list because no one knows who they are. Do the names Larry Ellison, Bill Joy, Alan Kay, or Robert Metcalfe mean anything to you? Let me know your favorite pick, below.

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