Digerati - Chapter 10

Digerati - Chapter 10

Bill Gates [10.1.96]

Chapter 10


Bill Gates

THE SAINT (Kevin Kelly): Gates is incredibly sharp. He's simply fantastic with numbers and things stored in his head. It's like he has the ultimate RAM in his brain. That's his inner nerd. But I was surprised by how much I liked him as a person, given how much I disliked DOS. Although he is extremely cagey‹he is always playing a game with how much he says or doesn't say because he is involved in so many embryonic deals‹he is also witty and accessible. He's curious about things. He likes to think big and wide‹he looks globally, in long terms, and across many disciplines. It would be impossible to be bored around him. Most importantly, he "gets it." He groks the current reality. I found he has a razor sharp intuition of exactly how things are. He may have to fudge what he says because he represents a large corporation, but you can tell that he grasps what's really happening underneath, even at a cultural level. But the thing that most impressed me about Gates was his ritual of taking a couple weeks off every semester to read and think. I can't imagine anything more important to do in a world accelerating as fast as the one we are traveling in is.

Bill Gates is CEO of Microsoft Corporation and author of The Road Ahead (1995).

"Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen better watch out. Bill's comin' after them. He'll get 'em. You just wait." David Bunnell lapses into his Nebraska twang to make a Cassandra-like prediction on the fate of Netscape and its two founders. He is driving me up Interstate 280, from Silicon Valley to the San Francisco airport. "Hell, just look at what he did to Lotus and Borland," he continues. "Microsoft was just getting on the map in applications in the mid-'80s. Now it owns the desktop." David was talking about his friend Bill Gates's successful move into the spreadsheet market with Microsoft Excel, a product that dislodged Lotus 1-2-3 from the Number One slot in the market and effectively fought off a worthy competitor in Borland's Quattro Pro.

David likes to reminisce. When he gets all warm and fuzzy, his favorite word is Bill. I have to confess, I probably hear more about Bill than I need to or want to. But I have to listen to David: we're partners in a business venture. I have no idea, however, why I listen to our mutual friend Dr. Eddie Currie, who‹along with David, Bill, and Paul Allen, the cofounder of Microsoft‹was in Albuquerque working at MITS in 1975, when the personal computer revolution began.

What would you like to know? How Bill and Paul became friends as kids in Seattle? The positive effect of Bill's parents on his character? I bet you don't know the story of Bill's first and most important victory, the arbitration with MITS over the ownership of Basic. Well, I do.

"Why," I ask myself, "do I have to know all this stuff? Why must my head be the databank of David and Eddie's memories of Bill Gates as a teenage phenom? What are they doing to me? Enough already!"

"Why," I ask myself, "do I have to know all this stuff. Why must my head be the databank of David's and Eddie's memories of Bill Gates as a teenage phenom. What are they doing to me? Enough already!" Tom Wolfe, where are you? What these guys began twenty years ago was nothing less than the beginning of the most important revolution of the century. Who is going to do for Bill Gates and friends what Wolfe did for the astronauts in The Right Stuff? Spielberg, Geffen, Katzenberg, where are you? This is the epic movie America is waiting for, one the whole family can enjoy. No violence, most certainly no sex, not even aliens (well, not really): just a story of a bunch of young men who changed the world.

When it comes to Bill Gates, David pales next to Dr. Currie, who now runs a C++ tool company. The last time we got together, he braved a blizzard to drive into Manhattan for a dinner party, during which he spent an hour trying to convince my fifteen-year-old son, Max, to donate his brand-new Macintosh 7500 to the Computers and You program at San Francisco's Glide Memorial Church and switch to a Pentium machine running Windows 95. I waited for an exegesis on the technological issues, but to my astonishment, Eddie based his pitch on patriotism: what is good for Microsoft and Windows is good for America. "Ask not what Microsoft can do for you," Eddie said, "Ask what you can do for Microsoft." Or something original like that. "But I don't want a Pentium machine," Max replied. "I like my Mac."

"Don't be a selfish teenager, Max. We need standardization," Eddie pronounced. "How many different kinds of operating systems do we have for automobiles? Cars all work the same way, and you don't have to know what's under the hood. Just turn the key and you're off and running. Standardization will strengthen us as a nation. That's what Bill can do for America, not to say what he's already doing for our balance of payments." With that, Eddie opened the door, looked back at Max, and said, "Everybody loves to hate Microsoft and Bill simply because they're Number One, but when the history of twentieth-century business is written, you'll have Henry Ford, Bill Gates, and then the rest. Remember that." He he left to brave the storm, leaving us with visions of crashes dotting the highways.

"David's bonkers, but Dr. Currie is really nutty if he thinks I'm giving up my Mac for Windows," Max said. "Well," I replied, "maybe there was something in the water in Albuquerque. But remember what Dvorak told you last year? 'There's a Windows machine in your future. Get used to the idea.' Anyway, why do you have attitude about Microsoft. What has Bill Gates ever done to you? So you found out that he has two friends. Big deal. Don't let it ruin your day."

A month later, in February 1996, David called to say he was flying into New York for an Internet conference at the Jacob K. Javitz Center. Did I want to meet up with him to hear Bill speak first thing the next morning? So there I was at 8 a.m., in line with about two thousand other people eager to hear Bill's' pronouncements about Microsoft and the Internet.

Bill's talk was a masterful presentation aimed at illustrating how Microsoft planned to embrace and extend all the new open technologies and allow its customers to interact with the Web in exciting ways through the integration of new versions of Microsoft desktop applications with Microsoft Explorer, a proprietary Web browser. The demonstration was exciting. "Pretty impressive," I said in a whisper to David, who sat beside me. "Can you do this now on your IBM ThinkPad?" "Are you kidding?" he replied. "This is pure Bill. It's known as FUD: fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Two thousand people in this hall, many of whom make key hardware and software buying decisions for the big corporations, are not going to risk going all the way with Netscape or Sun and find themselves locked out of Bill's vision in a few months. He's already having a formidable impact on the marketplace. That's why he's a genius."

In a blink, the lights went up. Bill Gates was gone. I closed my eyes for a moment and had a flashback. I was sitting next to Abbie Hoffman in Madison Square Garden in the early '70s staring at a brightly lit, empty stage as an announcer intoned, "Elvis has left the building. The King has left the building." I opened my eyes. No Abbie. No Elvis. No Bill. The King had left the building, but David was still there beside me. "John," he said, "what you just witnessed was the end of the beginning of the personal computer revolution. Bill's a digerati now. You gotta put him in your book."

Bill Gates is "The Software Developer."

THE SOFTWARE DEVELOPER (Bill Gates): The vision that really got Microsoft going‹a computer on every desk and in every home‹was always dependent on low-cost communications coming along. There was the notion that eventually you would get to a critical mass, where you would have enough people connected up so that it made sense to start publishing lots of information in electronic form.

We didn't know exactly when critical mass would happen or exactly what protocols or standards it would coalesce around. We weren't certain when lightning would strike, although it became clear that corporations were building up more and more connectivity, that communications was the killer application for PCs, and that multimedia would be a key part of the experience.

We were investing in all of this through our research and product development work. We talked about how CD-ROM was a transitional technology, and that eventually high-bandwidth networks would eliminate the need for the physical disk. CD-ROM was a great bootstrap because of its capacity to show how an encyclopedia, different types of learning experiences and catalogues of information could be put together in electronic form. That had a positive effect. It turned into a good business and certainly did a lot to get people moving along with tools.

In terms of the hardware, there was always the question: will PCs or TV sets would be at the center? A lot of phone companies and cable companies talked about interactive TV as the defining application. Most people would say that a more evolutionary approach clearly starts with a PC but moves to incorporate new devices that are more like TV sets. In a sense, you can say these devices are just the result of the PC getting better and better and moving into more forms. These devices‹PCs or information appliances‹all connected at high bandwidths, will allow the user to do many powerful things. As a result, the Internet is getting richer and richer.

In '93, we began to see universities using the Internet as more than just a phenomenon in the engineering or computer science departments. Cornell and other schools started to create intranets, putting out class schedules and lots of other useful information. University students got tied in with electronic mail. This was great, because we were always evangelizing about electronic mail and information sharing as a big productivity gain. Then in '94 you got people doing hypertext through the Web protocols. There was more commercial involvement, more than just using the Web for FTP or telnet or electronic mail. That's when we started up our first big projects and shipped our first Internet-based products.

By early '95, it was clear that you had critical mass. It was the starting point for the Internet in the same way that the IBM PC became the seed corn for the PC revolution, despite all the arbitrary and weak elements in the IBM PC. In that case, once the phenomenon got going the weaknesses of the PC almost became a strength as new companies were founded to eliminate those weaknesses.

Of course, there are similar weaknesses with the Internet. For example, is it bad that the Web doesn't have security? Sure, but Microsoft and Netscape are just two of many companies coming in to fix that problem. Is it a problem that things are hard to find on the Web? Sure, but there are lots of start-ups in the business of helping with that problem.

What has developed is a gold rush atmosphere: any company in any business is thinking about the Internet. This phenomenon is now the center of gravity of the computing world. The question now is: How are we going to tie into this, for information inside businesses, for business at large, for education, and, as the bandwidth moves up, even for entertainment?

Right now, much of the content on the Web is created by people who have a product to sell you, like a General Motors, or a Fidelity, or a Schwab. They are publishing with the goal of building a customer relationship. We're seeing a tremendous amount of interest from the media. The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal and others are looking at the Internet, trying to sort out how to bring new value to the medium, and how to protect their readership.

The people who are investing a lot of money in doing unique material for the Web base their approach on a view that the number of users will grow substantially and so advertising and subscription revenues will also grow. Microsoft is doing a lot of things predicated on that optimism, and thousands of other companies are jumping in. Time Warner's Pathfinder is a good example; they have been trying to add value in a more significant way than just taking material from other media.

There will continue to be high levels of investment over the next two or three years. But there will come a point when companies will ask, "If the revenue's not there, is this a great way to be spending money and tying up our people?"

Eventually, we'll look back on this era and say there were a lot of people who went way overboard‹and wasn't it silly what they did‹but we'll certainly see a few people who got the combination right, invested in the right areas, and built an asset of great enduring value. That's what makes it so exciting right now. You're dealing with a lot of optimists and people who don't want to be left out. That makes this a fun time.

In terms of the Web experience, right now it comes across as a bit isolating. But the Internet is evolving so rapidly that the majority of sites eventually will be 3-D worlds where you will explore an environment more like a physical world. You'll talk with people and share experiences with them in entirely new ways, and things will be very active, with animation, sound, and video. The pages won't be flat 2-D pages, and they certainly won't be static like a lot of pages are now.

Another thing that will happen is that people using the Internet will start to develop their own profiles, so the information they receive will be based on their unique interests and location. When you connect up to Microsoft, for example, we'd like to show you different material if you're a Mac user working from home than if you're the CIO of a corporation with one thousand personal computers. Already, you can get localized news, localized weather, and highly targeted information sent to you automatically on the Internet.

While the issue of content on the Internet sorts itself out, there are a lot of other dynamic changes happening in the computer industry. The hardware industry, for example, is a very competitive world. Companies like Compaq have managed to do very well with their brand and engineering. That's great. The miracle of the microprocessor is being passed through at very low cost to end-users. As the microprocessor is getting faster and faster, it is taking on more and more applications and is not too far from being able to take even the most demanding applications. For people in the computer world who have been protected from the very fast-moving parts of the PC world, and the low prices, certainly there's a big threat. There's a threat to IBM, DEC, certainly Sun, and even the Unix crowd.

Similarly, things are very dynamic in the software industry. If someone makes a browser that's very popular, we'll make sure our browser has the same features. If our browser, Internet Explorer, has good features and is popular, Netscape and others will do the same thing. This is a complete repeat of what happened in spreadsheets, what happened in word processing, what happened in network operating systems.

Essentially Netscape wants to take a browser and turn it into an operating system. We want to take an operating system and have enough Internet capability built in so that people continue to view Windows as the best way to use the Internet. That's what our customers expect us to do. Unless we're doing a better operating system and keeping the prices low, somebody else is going to come in. Nobody has a guaranteed situation as you look ahead a couple of years. Companies are moving as fast as they can, and the marketplace is the judge of who gets these things right. This competition is great for the end-user, because all the companies involved have very low prices and there is a lot of free software being made available.

The Internet certainly is changing how people look at the world. It's a revolution in communications that rivals the invention of the printing process, the phone, the TV. The difference with the Internet is that it has such incredible potential for interactivity, for letting you find people with common interests, for letting you go in your own direction. You can reach out and be put in contact with people who share what you care about.

With this new communications revolution we'll be less constrained in terms of living in cities and in terms of only viewing ourselves as being part of a geographic community. We're still not at the point where all of the world's knowledge is available electronically and all of the world's commerce can be done electronically. There's probably another decade to go before all that happens. Then there may be another decade or more before people are so used to the Internet that it redefines how they go about their everyday activities.

Most revolutions take forty or fifty years to complete, but this new communications revolution is moving at an accelerated pace. Although it's still hard to get connected to the Internet‹it's still kind of expensive and the user interfaces aren't right‹that you can talk about it as a place where people are getting together, where lots of information is becoming available, and where commerce is beginning to be transacted, shows that it's dramatically beyond what it was even two or three years ago.

One of the best examples is electronic mail. More and more people will be drawn to email as part of their regular daily activities. I'll expect my doctor, my lawyer, anybody I work with on a professional basis to be accessible on electronic mail and to be able to answer questions, organize meetings, etc. People like me who are enthusiastic about all of this tend to draw in more and more people. I've got all my relatives hooked up. It's great.

Intranets are also becoming very important. The beauty of them is you don't have to go buy any new hardware, just some simple software that allows you to use the tools that you know and take corporate information and make it easily available. At Microsoft, for example, you can call up the internal web and find out about any activity happening on campus, about HR policies and benefits, you can read the latest internal newsletter or join a social group.

Right now, activity around the Internet is still largely U.S.-centric. This is surprising for a country that five or six years ago was thought of as falling behind Japan. As you look at this new revolution, it's interesting to me how the companies of interest at all levels are largely U.S. companies. But now there are whole cities in Europe that are getting connected, and in the next couple of years the Internet phenomenon is going to explode throughout much of the developed and developing world, just as it has in the United States.

THE COMPETITOR (Scott McNealy): Bill Gates and his company get a lot of people at Sun Microsystems up in the morning. The world needs an alternative. The world needs competition. I believe in choices, and I don't believe there's much choice in a Microsoft environment. The world needs open, multivendor, clone, competitive, well-priced, innovative product. This is Sun's opportunity, and we certainly have a worthy challenger to that goal in Bill and Microsoft.

THE PRODIGY (Jaron Lanier): I am not against Bill Gates the man, but he's playing a historical role that demands a harsh critique. Within his lifetime, Bill will have probably acquired, by accident, a kind of power that has been rarely sought and never before achieved. The medieval popes sought to be the intermediaries for all thought and communication, even as they were the patrons of the elite intellectuals of their day. They serve as the best precedent we have for what is truly an unprecedented situation. In twenty or fifty years, when most human affairs, intimate and grand, are conducted via computer operating systems, Microsoft could become the universal gatekeeper of thought. Microsoft has so far not been malevolent when it has exercised editorial power. But absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Microsoft could well end up with a new type of absolute power.

THE MARKETER (Ted Leonsis): The man is brilliant. While people think he's a great software person, he's the world's best marketing person. The Windows 95 announcement was unbelievable. It wasn't a cure for AIDS, it was a software upgrade. Yet it commanded the attention of the entire county. His prowess is as a business thinker, a marketer, combined with being a great software thinker. Bill Gates knows he's in the media business.

THE LOVER (Dave Winer): Bill Gates gets a bad rap; I don't know why that is, why he specifically provokes so much negativity from people. He is successful because of his confidence, partially, but also because of everybody else's gross incompetence.

THE PRAGMATIST (Stewart Alsop): The Henry Ford of computing. Part of being friends with Bill is that he's allowed to make obnoxious comments about you. Bill is uncompromising. It doesn't matter who you are. His fundamental integrity requires that you always be perfect. If you don't measure up, you have to suffer the consequences.

THE STATESMAN (Steve Case): I don't always agree with what Bill does or how he does it. I think Microsoft suffers a bit because it's still too Bill-centric. But you can't argue with the results. He still has that edge, and this whole battle over the Internet has awakened him and reignited those passions. It's really something quite remarkable to watch.

THE CONSERVATIVE (David Gelernter): I have a feeling that Bill Gates is unsatisfied by who he is. When I read his book, The Road Ahead, I was reminded of Marilyn Monroe and her need to marry intellectuals; she felt she needed to switch identities in order to get the respect she deserved, but she didn't, or at any rate shouldn't have. I wish Gates had written a book about business instead of the future of technology. We would all have learned a lot. As a businessman, Gates is a phenomenon and an original. What's wrong with that? That's a remarkable thing to be. As a technology visionary, he does nothing for me.

THE GADFLY (John C. Dvorak): The most underrated business executive of the twentieth century. Bill turns his charm on and off like a water faucet.

THE CATALYST (Linda Stone): Bill is one of the most driven, most intellectually curious people one could ever encounter. I have no doubt that he is one of the greatest business leaders of this century. To be at Microsoft when Bill initiated the strategy shift to embrace the Internet was to experience something as awesome as an abrupt change in seasons. What may be less well known is that this guy has a terrific sense of humor.

THE IDEALIST (Denise Caruso): Bill is probably the most driven person I know in this business. The guy owns something like 85 or 90 percent of the PC desktops in the world, right? If there's anything we know today, it's that Microsoft has a lock on the market for operating systems. But during an interview, when someone made mention of that fact, he interrupted the guy. "Oh, do we have a lock on it?" he says, all sardonic. "Should I take a vacation?" Yes, Bill. We think you should.

THE GENIUS (W. Daniel Hillis): Bill Gates is a prime example of the power of a smart person being focused on exactly what he wants. He accomplishes his goals while the rest of us are just muddling around. Watching Bill operate makes me realize, for better or worse, how unfocused I am.

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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996). Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved