THE SOFTWARE DEVELOPER
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 cageyhe is always playing a game with how much
he says or doesn't say because he is involved in so many embryonic
dealshe is also witty and accessible. He's curious about
things. He likes to think big and widehe 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.
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, whoalong
with David, Bill, and Paul Allen, the cofounder of Microsoftwas
in Albuquerque working at MITS in 1975, when the personal computer
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
"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
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
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 goinga computer on every desk and in every
homewas 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 devicesPCs or information appliancesall
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 Times, The 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 overboardand wasn't it silly
what they didbut 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
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
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 Internetit's
still kind of expensive and the user interfaces aren't rightthat
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
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
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.
[Back to Top]
Excerpted from Digerati:
Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired
Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights