Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/06/19/bill_gates_column/

Gates becomes a higher power

Step down really a step up

By Guy Kewney

Posted in Software, 19th June 2006 10:06 GMT

Comment "People think of me as this technical guy," Bill Gates once told me. "In fact, the important point to remember about my background is the fact that I was brought up to be a lawyer. My family are all corporate lawyers, and the conversation at every breakfast was always over the latest legal developments in the business space. You might say it's in my blood."

It wasn't a formal interview. Gates had just done a keynote speech at Comdex, the Las Vegas convention for computer dealers and distributors, back in the 80s - a speech which marked his split from IBM. It was the point where Gates threw his weight behind the 32-bit version of Windows, and Bill Lowe of IBM insisted there would never be any need for anything beyond a 16-bit personal desktop machine, and the 80286 processor was just fine, with OS/2 on it.

I was waiting in the press room for Gates to do a post-keynote question and answer session, having decided that the speeches themselves would be too boring to waste time on; and Gates arrived 20 minutes ahead of the posse, having done his bit. It was a valuable 20 minutes, for me, giving me many insights into the way the guiding mind behind Microsoft actually worked.

I've rather lost touch with Bill Gates. Time was when we were - well, hardly close! - but well acquainted, to the point that he'd stop in the street and chat if we met. And it's instructive to ask: "Why doesn't Bill meet people like me any more?" And, of course, "now that he's decided to step down from his current role, what will this mean to Microsoft?"

Contrary to much hostile propaganda, Microsoft under Gates has seldom sought to compel enthusiasm from the Press. You can find stories from normally reliable sources saying that "huge advertising budgets were re-directed away from critical media" - but that has never been my experience. And whenever I've been involved in such an incident, I've been aware that the story was not well founded.

There have been occasions, of course, where relatively junior executives took it upon themselves to try to bully magazines or newspapers or writers. I've been involved in a couple of those. On one occasion, I was asked to write a weekly column for MSN UK and - after a five week honeymoon period - decided to test the editor's assurance that my column was completely free-ranging and not subject to censorship by Microsoft executives. I wrote a piece highly critical of a particularly bone-headed decision - and it was pulled.

That was the end of my relationship with MSN, of course; but the wrath of senior Microsoft directors when they heard of the editor's decision, was impressive. By and large, for whatever reason, Gates and Ballmer have been consistently determined to respect the independence of the journalistic profession, even when they were personally very scornful (and publicly so) of the individual journalists involved.

So it's a good question: why doesn't Bill keep in touch with the old hacks?

Ignore the people who will write in saying: "I'm a journalist, and I talk to Bill Gates" - I'm sure they do - as being exceptions that prove the rule. In general, the answer is a simple one: Bill Gates has found that his time is far better spent ignoring journalists, and instead, influencing other "opinion formers" these days.

Those opinion formers are politicians. Gates has spent the last two decades transforming himself from a publicist into a lobbyist; someone who goes directly for the nerve centres of power and does deals, rather than someone who hopes the people at those centres will think well of him if they read good things in the media.

And, more significantly, perhaps, Gates has discovered the power of money.

Gates uses money directly. He seeks out a keystone in the financial structure, and either sponsors its erection, or subsidises its destruction. The lesson Steve Jobs taught him with the provision of Apple Mac machines to American schools went home. Today, Gates investments in politically influential groups are significant and (more importantly) effective and unobtrusive.

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... ®