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Large groups are covert Microsoft evangelists; local authorities, for example, have been discovered to be doing "independent research" into the effectiveness of SQL Server vs Oracle, or the return-on-investment benefits of Windows over Linux which is, usually, powerfully persuasive of the superiority of the Redmond product.

Scratch the surface, and you are liable to find that this independent research has been done for them by Microsoft. In exchange, yes, money has changed hands, or at least, goods and services to large value.

Personally, I don't have a problem with this sort of lobbying. It's a part of our society, and until society finds a way of regulating it, it seems ridiculous to expect a corporation to fail to exploit it. And, as Bill said to me at that breakfast chat: "It's important for a corporate leader to know the difference between what is actually illegal, and what people assume should be illegal."

Gates got his big break, of course, in exactly such a way. He and Paul Allen wrote a Basic interpreter for Altair, and everybody assumed that the intellectual proper rights for that interpreter belonged to Altair. It was not so; and Microsoft's M-Basic became an industry standard.

Whenever Microsoft has rather lost its way, legally, it has been at a time when for one reason or another, Bill has taken his hand off the tiller. The Stac scandal (disk compression software) looks to me like a case in point; as was the anti-trust lawsuit in America.

So for me, the important question for the future of Microsoft is: "Just how much control over executive decisions will Bill Gates have, when he becomes merely chairman of Microsoft in another two years?", and :"If he is taken out of the loop, how quickly will the corporation run aground in some massive anti-trust disaster?"

As software architect, his loss will be trivial. Today, Microsoft may claim to be innovative, but it really doesn't have scope to do that. It has an albatross around its corporate neck: the need to stay compatible at the Active-X level with the mistakes of IBM when it designed the original PC.

That's a basically, fundamentally insecure architecture. It has led to a platform too complex to maintain in a better than marginally stable condition, and real innovation would threaten that stability - just at the point where Microsoft really needs to deal with a rising tide of concern about security and vulnerability. The job of software architect is basically a case of putting out fires and making sure nobody starts any new ones.

As chairman, without needing to worry about whether Vista will be 18 or 30 months late, his influence could paradoxically be far greater. As a Captain of industry, his guidance is far more than just "some geek with money" - he understands the law and what is possible, and what is not, better than any of his contemporaries.

And his approach to getting things done is legendary.

Shortly before his death, Douglas Adams took me to a restaurant in Kensington to chat about "stuff" including the Starship Titanic computer game, and to catch up on gossip - something we didn't do as often as we wanted. One of his projects was the Mountain Gorilla.

"I said to the group who was raising money that I thought I might be able to get the ear of Bill Gates," said Adams. "I sent him an email and, sure enough, I got an appointment to fly out and see him. When I met him, he had just one question: 'How much will it take?' - not 'How much do you want?' but what's the budget..."

Adams explained that the first year, they had a target of X million... Gates interrupted. "No, I mean, how much is the complete budget. How much will it take to solve the problem of the Mountain Gorilla, permanently?"

Be assured that the mind which tackled that problem is now considering how to solve the problem of Linux.

Permanently... ®

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