Thursday, March 26, 1998

Bill Gates, Hand-wringing and Soul-searching



My grin begins to broaden when I read of the hand-wringing, soul-searching and committee-meeting going on over my good friend Bill Gates. I say 'good friend' in the same way I might call to mind Thomas Jefferson or Henry Ford, a friend in the metaphoric sense of someone who has done me well. Let me hasten to add, I own not a single share of Microsoft, darn the luck.

Congress has put him in the investigative chair between two of his competitors, to disprove if he can, that he is the reincarnation of John D. Rockefeller. Congress likes to do these things between flights back home to raise money from all three companies represented at the table. Picking on the largest is good 'home folks press,' the pointed finger and arched eyebrow is very senatorial. But they're not all that likely to fiddle with a good thing and Bill's running a good thing.

Roll back with me to those exciting days of yesteryear, the early days of automobiles, the last invention with anywhere near the impact of the computer age. Those early Packards and Peerlesses all had different 'operating systems' as well. They steered with levers, tillers or steering-wheels located left, right or center. Powered by steam, electricity, gasoline or kerosene, they drove with gears or belts or chains if they drove at all. Just like my tinkery, blinkery computer, they often left you by the side of the road.

Finally, after twenty years or so the 'standard' developed. Steering wheel left and a uniform brake, clutch and accelerator layout as well as transmissions that shifted similarly. Car sales took off with this standard configuration of 'operating system' and automobiles went on to change our nation and our lives.

We harried computer owners have been too long in the same 'horseless carriage' phase of technology, our desktops and laptops so proprietary in their operating systems that they all speak a language foreign to one another. Manufacturers made sure we were chained to their product and severely punished should we wander. Levers versus wheels and it would still be levers versus wheels if Gates hadn't given us common language.

'Apples and oranges' you say and you are right. The parallel is not exact and yet it suffices. No single company owns the configuration by which we steer and run our cars, licensing it to the manufacturers. But my friend Bill gave me what Apple and IBM and the rest refused to give me, and I suffered and my business languished and my success with girls all but dried up because of it. 'Enough,' I cried and Bill heard me.

Microsoft didn't grow to make Gates the wealthiest man in the world by subterfuge or monopoly. It grew because you and I were desperate for a system that would put the Compaq and Dell and IBM and Hewlitt Packard steering wheel on the same side. Windows allowed us beleaguered consumers to drive the machine we bought, out of the dealership, with some degree of confidence and we slapped down our money for the pleasure. It's the American way.

Apple ignored that opportunity, opting to go it alone with a unique operating system that users loved and upon which Windows was based. But they wouldn't share, wanted to make sure their buyers couldn't drive another model. Stamped their foot and took their toys on home. The cost to their long term survival of that proprietary decision is still an open question.

There will be more winners and losers, more Microsofts and Apples in the coming years, but the man we've yanked so gleefully before the congress has drawn the ire of his competitors the same way Henry Ford did. Gates produced a better product at a better price in a time when others in the industry thought arrogance could carry the day. And like Henry Ford, he's driven the price of his product lower every year. What a monopolistic thing to do.

The path the world beat to his door may take still another direction in a year or two, an unexpected left turn that could yet come out of someone's garage or from a competitor. But in the meanwhile, grinning from the sidelines and cheering them all on, I'll still be typing these thoughts on my Macintosh Performa and winging them off on Netscape Navigator.