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The Clymo Brief: Goodbye Mr Gates
image of Bill Gates with Fiona Bruce on BBC 2's The Money Programme © BBC
“He has taken over the world, end of story. Live with it. Accept it. It’s done.” So said Sir Alan Sugar of Bill Gates on BBC 2’s The Money Programme last Friday night.
Seeing old black and white photographs of the dapper Sugar standing next to one of his Amstrad PCs took me nostalgically back to my first ever computer and the wonderful world of the Windows operating system.
image © BBC
My first computer
It was an Amstrad PCW9512 that still languishes in my parents’ garden shed. It also probably still works. Not that its technical specs would cut the mustard these days with its far from blistering 4MHz processor speed, 512KB (yes, that’s kilobytes) of RAM and 720KB floppy disk drive along with a CP/M operating system.
Its word processing capability, however, did have black text on a white background, unlike earlier models that displayed green on black. It even enabled the construction of a database of names and addresses. Wowza!
I remember being very impressed by all of this, having previously done my typing only on a Brother electric typewriter. Prior to that, my only encounter with computers had been via a Space Invaders machine at the local chip shop. That must have been in 1988 or 89.
image © AP/PA Photos
Early dealings with Sir Alan
All this came drifting back while I listened to Sir Alan chirping on about his dealings with Gates back in the eighties, about how he had brokered a deal to use the ever-expanding Microsoft Corporation’s operating system. Apparently, hard-nosed businessman Sir Alan got it for peanuts - although he’s not allowed to say exactly how much even to this day.
So Gates didn’t quite manage to conquer the Amstrad HQ in Brentwood, Essex but he did manage the rest of the world over the course of the last 30 years or so. No mean feat, as Sir Alan candidly admitted, having himself focused on the computers while missing the true value of the software that ran them: “He was right, I was wrong.”
With Gates having just retired from Microsoft, it is not so much the end of one career but the beginning of another. Though Gates will remain company chairman, he has ambitious plans to dedicate his time to global health and education initiatives pioneered by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an organisation he founded with his wife back at the beginning of the decade.
image © Elaine Thompson/AP/PA Photos
In between, Gates will be popping along to the Olympic Games in Beijing and, if he’s anything like me when I was ‘between jobs’, catching up on all those things he didn’t get around to while working.
You could forgive Gates if he just wanted to put his feet up and relax for a while, but it seems that this is not an option for a man who appears driven in every task he takes on. That determination has roots that go way back.
Gates, now 52, grew up in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington. This is an area of the States where entrepreneurial vision seems to permeate the very air you breathe, having spawned the likes of Amazon, RealNetworks, Starbucks and, erm, grunge music. The suburb of Redmond, where the Microsoft company headquarters has been based since early 1986 is leafy, laid-back and affluent.
image © AP/PA Photos
Gates’ early years in computing make for a Boy’s Own adventure of messing about with electronics alongside his pal Paul Allen, from tinkering with a primitive Teletype machine at his Lakeside private school in the sixties through to the duo’s production of software for the very first personal computer, the Altair.
After enrolling at Harvard College in 1973, Gates became good friends with the similarly driven Steve Ballmer and the two subsequently became close business collaborators. Ballmer later became CEO at Microsoft and is now due to inherit Bill’s old office at the Microsoft HQ.
Gates, meanwhile, has probably transferred his lucky Gonk and electric pencil-sharpener to a broom cupboard down the corridor for occasions when he suddenly needs to drop by – perhaps to see if Ballmer has moved the furniture around.
image © Robert Sorto/AP/PA Photos
Amazingly, and much to the initial chagrin of his parents, Gates dropped out of Harvard to pursue his goals, founding Microsoft in Albuquerque, New Mexico during 1975 and relocating the fledgling business to Bellevue, Washington at the tail-end of 1978.
This was the period that produced that fabulous photograph of the original Microsoft team looking more like an obscure southern rock band than a serious business proposition. But, believe it or not, back then nearly everyone else looked like that too.
Striking a deal with IBM
A few haircuts later and after going public in 1981, Microsoft went on to strike a deal with computing colossus IBM, one which saw their fledgling MS-DOS 1.0 operating system released to a mass market audience.
image © Joe Brockert/AP/PA Photos
The rest is software history. The Office suite has now been around for nearly 20 years, while successive versions of Windows have generally been improvements on their predecessors. Of course, there is an argument over Vista which seems to have garnered adulation and disdain in equal measures, meaning its replacement, Windows 7 will have much to gain.
I am more intrigued, however, about Gates’ early vision of the internet. Reading his memo entitled The Internet Tidal Wave back in May 1995 would have provided a fascinating insight into the way things would turn out.
“Now I assign the internet the highest level of importance,” Gates wrote with the sort of determined outlook that would propel Microsoft’s Internet Explorer on to become the most widely used web browsing software on the planet.
Having said that, I think it’s also fair to say that Microsoft did some things wrong where Google has gone on to do a lot of things right. They’re still largely playing catch-up on that front too.
image © Shizuo Kambayashi/AP/PA Photos
There is also, perhaps, a hard edge to Gates’ methods. This was hinted at later on in last Friday’s Money Programme as Fiona Bruce put it to Gates that the company still deals a sledgehammer type blow to anyone who challenges its supremacy.
“One of the things critics say is that Microsoft is as aggressive about winning now as a tiny start-up fighting for its life,” she commented.
“Well, that sounds like a compliment,” beamed Gates, not taking the bait. “It’s a very competitive business.”
image © Elise Amendola/AP/PA Photos
Indeed it is and, as a result, it has been easy to knock Gates for his unrelenting vision over the years. But credit is due for what the man has accomplished in the field of computing and communications.
Oh sure, Windows doesn’t always do what you want it to. On occasions it’ll drive you completely bonkers. (Blue Screen of Death anyone?) But Gates took computing software to the masses.
He may have given us Clippy, that immensely irritating animated paperclip office assistant, but this is still an impressive achievement for a college drop-out. Mind you, he was finally invited back to Harvard in June of last year to receive an honorary degree. I guess you could say he’s earned it.
Recent columns from Rob Clymo:
Rob Clymo is a journalist employed on a freelance basis by Microsoft. The views in this article are those of the author and not of MSN or Microsoft. Microsoft is the publisher and owner of MSN Tech & Gadgets.