The legacy of Bill Gates

Reading the many different opinions of people about the news that Bill Gates will step down as Microsoft’s chief software architect in two years’ time gave me cause to reflect on what an amazing time the past twenty-five years has been in terms of developments in technology that enable people to do amazing things.

I can still clearly remember my sense of awe when I got hold of my first ‘real’ computer in the early 1980s – a KayPro portable running CP/M and on which I learned what word processing meant using WordStar. Boy, thinking about what you could do with such tools after typewriters, tippex and paper (and carbon paper) stirs up some memories again!

Like many people with a strong interest in developments in technology, I’ve read all Gates’ books. But for me, the best book of all that chronicles the true pioneering times in the development of the first PC and the operating system it would run is Blue Magic by James Chposky and Ted Leonsis (ISBN: 0-246-13445-3) published in 1988 and which I bought in 1989. Out of print now, but you can still find copies for sale. Of all the business books I own, this is the one I’ve read and re-read the most.

If Bill Gates is the pioneer in leading the software company that developed the ubiquitous operating system for mass market PCs – called in the 1980s ‘IBM compatible PCs’ – Don Estridge was the key enabler in getting the actual machine (the hardware) made that it would run on, and which subsequently spawned an entire industry.

Of all the different opinions I’ve read today about Bill Gates and his and Microsoft’s achievements, the best one is this succinct summary by Jeff Jarvis writing in The Guardian’s Comment is Free:

[…] Gates was merely the best businessman ever born. He was ruthless. But capitalism is ruthless. It is a system. And it is that system — not his operating systems — that made Gates so damned big. Gates was not an inventor and innovator and I’ll argue that — his prognosticating books aside — he was no visionary. He was an exploiter. His first product was another version of the Basic programming language. His master stroke was taking the essence of a now-forgotten operating system called CP/M and turning it into MS-DOS, the neurology of the personal-computer revolution. He took the tool that truly created the technology age, VisiCalc — the spreadsheet that let business people ask “what if?”, which is what put computers on every office desk in the world — and turned it into Excel, part of his Office suite that also included Word, which itself was really just an adaptation of WordStar. He took the art of the Apple Lisa and Mac and turned it into the clumsy painting-on-velvet, Windows. Gates took others’ innovations and turned them into products and profits. Every great invention needs a business genius to bring it to market. For software, that was Gates.

That says it all.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. neville

    David, even Jimmy Wales says don’t cite Wikipedia as a truly accurate reference source ;)

    I agree, though, that Jeff’s piece is a bit misleading (inadvertantly, I’m certain) as to the real origin of MS-DOS. Seattle Computer Products had a product called SCP-DOS which Gates bought and which Microsoft then completed the debugging and fine-tuning of it which resulted in the first version of the MS-DOS operating system, which would power the original IBM PC.

    That’s the story on pages 51-53 in Blue Magic.

  2. Jeff Jarvis

    Correct. I said it badly. I meant that just as Excel was not written on the code base of Visicalc but did market its essence (ditto Word and Wordstar and Windows and the Mac), MS-DOS operated in a similar fashion to the popular CP/M. I should have made that clear.

  3. Hugo E. Martin

    SCP-DOS was not really a ready product than (and didn’t support fancy thinks like IBM’s Cassette recorder).

    I remember the day of IBM’s decision for MS-DOS (later PC-DOS). I was sitting with Tony Gold and Eddy Curry in Lifeboat Ass. Office in New York, N.Y and we waited – and later celebrated – IBM’s decision (the first material from IBM still showed CP/M as the Standard Operation System) important and hot news for the PC Magazine in development, headed by David Bunnell. The Magazine Tony sold soon to Ziff Davis – without asking neither the team nor us (his venture partner Vogel Publishing) trying to safe his company – but finally to make a lot money for ‘lost profit’ after 20 plus years via court action.

    About Visicalc – Excel:
    If I remember correctly Multiplan was Microsoft’s first spreadsheet program, Excel came much later

  4. David Tebbutt

    Re your comment on Wikipedia – I could have cited endless other sources.

    No point trying to undermine what I was saying by questioning the one source I quoted.

    I was there. I think I published the first review in the world on the IBM PC. We came in late (I flew to Boca Raton and met Don Estridge in September 1981) and got the magazine (Personal Computer World) out in a few days.

  5. neville

    I cite Wikipedia all the time, David. No intent to undermine you. The smiley should have indicated that. But either it was just too subtle or you need to develop a keener sense of humour!

    A nice tale, Hugo. Thanks for sharing it.

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