Friday, June 27, 2008

Thanks, Bill

I read several of the articles this evening describing the departure of Bill Gates from Microsoft, and quite a lot of the commentary.

While some of it was appropriately complementary, I thought a lot of it was kind of spiteful and missed the mark. One of the comments that I did see that I agreed with was from Rob Pegoraro of the Washington Post:

" of the foremost virtues of Microsoft's operating systems has been the staggering variety of third-party programs available for them."

Pegoraro is correct. This really is Gates' legacy at Microsoft: unlike the Apple world, which until very recently was a (relatively) closed environment, Gates perpetrated a non-Jobsian world in which we all got to write software and compete with each other.

Yes, there's that whole monopoly situation that happened, but for all the word processing companies that were put out of business, there are a bunch of other software developers - including several extremely large companies - that would not (could not) have existed without the hobbyist approach taken by Gates and Allen.

For anyone interested in these *real* early days of Micro-Soft (when it was three employees - Gates, Allen and Davidoff - and still had a hyphen), check out the text of the letter written by then-hobbyist Gates pleading with hobbists to pay him and Allen royalties for BASIC so they can "hire ten programmers and deluge the hobby market with good software".

Like the shareware/hobbyist generation of developers he helped get started, he lists his apartment as the suggested drop point for donations - 1180 Alvarado SE, #114, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87108.

Did Microsoft simply do a better job of engaging the user? Or did convenience (and bundling, as in Office) win the day? The release of FireFox 3 may settle once and for all the questions about whether better design (and investment in innovation) eventually win out over time.

For me, the most interesting aspect of Gates is not his company but the approach he is taking to deploying his wealth. He and his wife are doing some pretty remarkable things around the world, and are, unlike many organizations, attempting to deploy their money in ways that will ensure the bulk of it is used efficiently.

I think a century from now, Microsoft will almost certainly no longer exist. Gates' wealth distribution - and the results of his actions in this area - will be his lasting legacy.

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