Closing the Gates after Bill

[This is my BBC column from Monday – I forgot to post it here in all the week’s excitement (2gether08, New Media Awards, Shift Happens). You can read it on the BBC News website too.]

The publicity surrounding Bill Gates’ departure from Microsoft should not obscure the fact that he is still deeply involved in the company he founded in 1975.

Steve Ballmer, Ray Ozzie and Craig Mundie may now be in charge, but they were chosen by Gates, worked with Gates and are still answerable to Gates.  After all he remains company chairman and a major shareholder, and he will be working as an ‘advisor’ on special projects.

Gates also played a major part in setting Microsoft’s strategy for the next few years, as it continues to try to figure out how to convert its enormously profitable operating system and office software business into something that can generate money as we all move applications online and look for stripped-down, secure and reliable operating systems on our desktops, laptops and handheld computers

So it isn’t quite the end of an era, even if less of his time and concern will be spent on Microsoft matters as he makes the transition to being a global philanthropist through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

As a programmer, trainer, web developer and writer my professional life has certainly been shaped by Bill Gates and the choices he made for Microsoft, right back to 1985 when we used the Multiplan spreadsheet for the accounts at Bensasson and Chalmers, the software house in Cambridge where I had my first programming job.

I remember seeing Windows 1.0 for the first time running on Apricot hardware at Anglia Business Computers and thinking it was a lot less useful than GEM, the earlier graphical environment from Microsoft’s one-time rivals Digital Research, and a lot less flexible than the Macintosh Finder.

But even back then Microsoft knew how to learn from mistakes and improve a product release by release until it did what was needed.

Throughout the 80’s and 90’s I kept up with the new releases of Windows and Office, partly because I felt I needed to understand them and partly because everyone else was doing the same.

Once Internet Explorer became the dominant web browser then anyone working on the web had to take account of its many peculiarities, non-standard extensions and broken features, with all the pain of trying to make sites work on multiple incompatible browsers.

But things have changed. Microsoft’s presence in the mobile world, IPTV and gaming remains important, as are many of the technologies coming out of its research labs, but what Microsoft does or doesn’t do is now less central to the continued development of the networked world.

The clearest example is Vista, the latest version of Windows and the release that was supposed to change the world.

It may be more secure and more stable than Windows XP but the many differences between Vista and its predecessor, especially systems administration, have created a massive barrier to upgrading. My sister bought a new home computer with Vista pre-installed and has regretted not specifying XP ever since.

A few friends work in companies that use Vista, but the majority have not yet upgraded, and when I installed Windows on my desktop Mac this weekend I chose an old XP license because I don’t need the features that Vista offers.

Yet when Windows 95 was released I queued up to buy a copy from PC World, knowing that an understanding of the operating system was vital for my work as a consultant, commentator and critic of technology.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s IBM dominated the computing industry and their moves were observed by those working in the field with the sort of attention that the US State Department devoted to the Kremlin.  The world that Microsoft helped create on the back of IBM’s own personal computer architecture gradually eroded its importance, and even though IBM is large and profitable its strategy no longer shapes the computing industry.

Now the same thing is happening to Microsoft.

When the EU fined them £680m over their anti-competitive practices the general feeling within the industry was one of schadenfreude, taking pleasure in seeing a bully laid low. Few thought there was any need for the EU to change the way Microsoft worked because it no longer mattered in the way it had done back in 2000.

It’s easy to see Google as the new monarch, and any software developers with a good idea for a new tool, service, program or utility must now be wondering how they will compete with Google in the way that companies developing disk utilities and office systems wondered about Microsoft back in the 1980’s.

But just asking ‘what would Google do’ is no longer enough.  When IBM and Microsoft were dominant the computing industry was just that, an industry that stood slightly apart from other parts of the economy and was, because of the rate of technology innovation, relatively unregulated compared to more mature sectors like cars or steelmaking.

Like Mikhail Gorbachev using his power as  head of state to dismantle the Soviet Union, Gates used Microsoft to give us one computer on every desk – in offices and schools if not yet at home  – and allow the internet to penetrate every one of them.   Windows may not have been the best possible operating system, but it was good enough to build on, usable enough to show us the possibilities of networked computing, and cheap enough (or easily pirated enough) to spread even to developing countries.

Now we have a global networked economy in which information and communications technologies are central to all areas of activity and cannot simply be separated out or left unregulated.  Microsoft may no longer be dominant, but not even Google can rule the world that Gates has built.

I wonder if that will be enough for him?

Bill’s Links

Gates leaving:
Gates stands down:
John Naughton’s view:
Anil Dash has a more positive view:
EU fines Microsoft:
Windows 1.0 screenshot: