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The Canonization of St.Bill

Kildall's Ghost

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If William Henry Gates the Third's philanthropic work leads to him being canonized one day as the first secular saint of our times, I won't stand in the way of the celebrations. Geeks get things very out of proportion, and the value of saving even one life should be more apparent to everyone than the cost of a poorly written Windows USB stack. When Microsoft is criticized, while the practices of arms dealers, pharmaceutical companies and extraction cartels around the world are ignored, its reminds us that some nerds place a very low value on human life itself.

But if Gates is to be canonized as the man who invented the PC, and without whom our lives would be poorer - as he is this evening - then we should all be troubled, as it suggests we're suffering from a terrible case of ignorance and amnesia. More troublingly, it raises the fair question - which we hope you can help answer - of what kind of qualifications one needs to have to earn the title 'Henry Ford Of Our Times'.

Tonight the BBC discussed Bill's legacy, and was effectively writing the first draft of his place in history. And in that painful BBC fashion of splitting the difference and losing the truth - there are two, but never more than two sides to every story - came to its conclusion. Bill Gates had been truly innovative in his earlier career, we learned, and while "someone would have invented the PC eventually" (we paraphrase), this incredible inventiveness could still be entered in mitigation when the final reckoning came.

So, Bill invented the PC? Even excusing for media hyperbole - and this is the kind of careless, but generous exaggeration you hear when someone has died (rather than relinquished the role of "Chief Software Architect") we would like to put a few points on the record.

It's a pity that in place of a pink-faced Microsoft employee called Robert Scoble - who told us at every opportunity that his paymaster was the most acute and most farsighted human being who ever lived - the BBC's Newsnight couldn't have called on former Times editor Sir Harold Evans to cast a more informed perspective.

For Evans may have set the record straight. When it's dumbed down for public consumption, the story of Bill's legacy to the world reads that "he made the cheap personal computer possible". This took great courage and foresight, and it may have been years before the lightbulb lit up above anyone else - who may or may not have been up to the task of implementing it. Gates did this by pioneering a high volume, low royalty license for shrink wrap operating system software that ran on different kinds of computers. Only then did economies of scale kick in, and the price of computers fell from the many thousands to the low hundreds of dollars. This version of history is being solidified this weekend like quick drying cement.

The problem, as Evans explains in his book They Made America : From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine: Two Centuries of Innovators, is that it isn't true.

It was Gary Kildall who pioneered this model, even writing the operating system himself. CP/M was the high volume, low royalty shrink wrap OS that ran on all kinds of incompatible micros already, the day IBM called on Bill Gates to write a BASIC compiler for its first PC. When IBM called on Gates, he didn't even have an operating system to sell, and scurried around to buy a cheap imitation of CP/M in a hurry, so he could fulfull the contract.

In the autumn of 1980, Bill's unfamiliarity with his new purchase didn't stop him proposing, in a story told by Stanford's John Wharton who was Intel's second point man for negotiations, a three way carve up of the market between IBM, Intel and Microsoft - then a company with 30 employees. If historians are to conclude that Bill "thought big", they'll be correct - but they may also conclude that he didn't always "think legally". Market carve ups are a violation of antitrust laws.

And if Gates' innovation or courage was much in evidence over the next few years, then it kept itself very well hidden. At the same time as Gates was getting acquainted with his first OS purchase, Kildall's Digital Research had already written its multitasking successor. It was not until twenty years later, with the role out of the NT-based Windows XP, that Microsoft could offer some of these features to consumers.

Bill's particular brand of foresight is overlooked. He's lauded for urging Apple to license its GUI because graphical interfaces were the future. As he wrote this, every personal computer available to the public, except the IBM PC, offered a graphical user interface. Bill's 1995 book the Road Ahead describes a world of connected computers - connected through walled-garden behemoths like CompuServe and his own MSN Network - and doesn't mention the internet once.

These are tedious cliches to most of you, but when the mass media lauds "stewardship", then that implies some kind of technological foresight. It isn't clear at all from a close reading of the record, and despite the protestation of pink-faced bloggers, that Gates was blessed with this gift.

But quit carping - aren't computers cheap, now? And don't we have Bill to thank for it, even if he was a bit of a stumbling opportunist?

We'll simply point to another awkward matter of fact, as explained by John Lettice of this parish here. Twenty years ago the personal computer in most people's homes connected to the TV, could multitask, do colour and multimedia, and cost around $400. It's taken Wintel twenty years to reach this price point.

And the PC still doesn't do multimedia reliably.

We're sticklers for awkward facts like these. Why they're being ignored suggests two views on to why the mass media is rushing to canonize St Bill.

Is history being rewritten simply so we can confer sainthood on a modern business visionary? That we must find a Henry Ford for software, simply because there was a Henry Ford in an earlier age? This indicates a narrow and repetitive view of approaching history - and forecloses lots of other possible explanations for the way things are.

Or is history simply being ignored, with a sly and knowing wink to the sophisticated audience, so that we conclude that only a ruthless and amoral business practitioner can succeed in this business? That like OJ, or unlike Enron, it's worth trying to get away with it? When Gary Kildall died, he was celebrated for the pleasure he took in life outside business and technology - quite unlike the monomaniacal Gates, who only in the past decade appears to have discovered there's a world beyond the PC business, and may be overcompensating as a result.

The answer to either question is worse than the other. But when responsible media organizations who tonight are celebrating Gates achievements next turn to the thorny subject of business ethics, they may have a harder time convincing us that they're sincere about the subject. ®

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