Microsoft’s Bill Gates retired from Microsoft Friday. He had been transitioning himself away from the spotlight for years now, having handed over the reins of CEO a few years ago to his second in command, Steve Ballmer. Yet, he was still intimately involved in day-to-day operations. Until Friday. Friday, it ends and Bill Gates will live the rest of his life controlling his philanthropy, the William and Melinda Gates foundation, the largest charitable concern in the entire world.
His resignation marks the end of an era, both for the world’s culture at large (more on that statement later) and myself personally. As some of you know, my job revolves around writing software for a trading desk at a major investment bank here in Manhattan. But programming was not just something I fell into out of dumb luck. A lot of the credit for my entry into this field has to do with Bill Gates and his own life’s work.
I first heard of Mr. Gates in 1989. I was a junior in High School at the time and the only computer I had ever owned was a Commodore 64 (it was freaking awesome for games!). One day, I walked into my friend Neil’s bedroom and he was playing around with his computer, an IBM PC (PS/2 model 80, I believe). It was very…professional looking. There were these strange commands he typed on the screen on this heavy looking keyboard that made these fantastic clacking sound (The famous IBM Model M keyboard) and the games he played on the computer were of a completely different caliber than my Commodore. It was love at first sight. The first game I saw was this game called Thexder, and the rest of my high school career was devoted to learning all I could about this wonderful machine. PC’s weren’t exactly ‘new’ at the time, but it was my first real exposure. I started subscribing to PC magazine and read every issue cover to cover. Slowly, but surely, the intoxicating new language of ‘computerdom’ started to reveal itself to me.
A year later, I was about to go into college and the subject of computers came up. Would I need one? If so, what would I get? It was about this time that Bill Gates came roaring into my life. You see, Microsoft was just getting set to release a little piece of software called Windows, version 3.0. I remember there was a big cover article in PC Magazine about it and the claim was that it would ‘change the world’. I couldn’t speak to that, but I somehow knew that it would be important. I started doing more research and found out that the new Windows 3.0 operating system would be pre-installed on IBM PC’s. And so it was that my family and I met with a campus representative of IBM to talk about buying a computer for me. You have to remember, in 1990 a computer was a luxury, not a necessity like today. 95% of my fellow collegians didn’t have computers and if they did, they were Macs. Most people got by using either typewriters, word processors or spending long hours in the college computer lab. My parents were never rich, but they somehow managed to find the money to fulfill my wishes and buy an IBM PS/2 model 55sx, which boasted a 386sx 16Mhz processor, 2 MB of ram, a 60MB hard drive and integrated video chip. The box, which cost $3300 including the monitor and dot-matrix printer(!), came pre-loaded with Windows 3.0 and Microsoft Office for Windows ver. 1.1. I was happy as a pig in shit, thereby completing the first techno-lust transaction of my young life. Hey, other kids had cars, I had technology. It’s a twisted world.
Having a Windows PC in those halcyon months was like being part of a secret cult society, replete with our own hand signals, code-talking and elitism. We laughed at the Mac users for whom PC’s were too ‘complicated’. Those pussies. We swapped software incessantly with each other. Games, hardware diagnostics, even stupid screen savers. I remember getting a copy of Fractint, a Fractal generator, and just staring in awe at the beautifully changing landscapes and scenery that were displayed. I spent hours using the software to zoom in and out of the fractals, marveling that each sublayer was a copy of the larger layer, ad naseum. I even bought James Gleick’s book “CHAOS”, to learn more about fractals and their implications. It was an exciting time of discovery for me and I was learning a lot about how the hardware and software industries worked.
Bill Gates, in particular, was a real inspiration in that regard. By now his story is famous. A Harvard dropout who formed MicroSoft in Alberquerque with a ragtag group of fellow misfits. He appropriated an early version of DOS and talked IBM into licensing it for their PC’s as the default operating system. In a stroke of complete genius, and a sign of things to come, he got IBM to play a flat licensing fee for each PC sold, REGARDLESS OF WHETHER THE PC SHIPPED WITH DOS!!! The IBM execs thought the market for PC’s was limited so they were happy not to have to pay an exorbitant licensing structure. Instead, PC’s took off in 1981 and millions were sold. Microsoft went public a few years later and Gates, at the tender age of 25 (or was it 24?), become an instant multi-millionaire. It’s the stuff American dreams are made of. But $330 million dollars was only a start. Gates and his team of nerd developers were busy coming up with the Windows concept, which was essentially supposed to be a Mac-like look and feel, but on a PC.
Here’s where history starts to get a little judgemental. There are those who say that Gates ‘stole’ Windows from Apple. That it should be Apple on every desktop in American and not Microsoft. But the truth of the matter is that Apple fell victim to their own greed. Clearly, Mac was the better product (and some would say still is) and they could have shipped millions of units, cornering the market. But Apple wanted to sell hardware as well as software because the common thought was that’s where the profits were. So, to put a stranglehold on their own market, Apple required Apple software to be run on Apple hardware, and charged a premium for it. It’s the equivalent of having a special tire that only fits a single car. Yes, the tire might be better, but you can’t put it on another car so if you want to use the tire, you need to buy that car. Apple was able to capture a solid 5% of the PC market with this strategy, but could never expand beyond that. The core of Microsoft’s success with Windows lay in the fact that they engineered it to run on ANY kind of PC platform using any kind of hardware imaginable. It didn’t matter if the Video card was made by NVidia and the Monitor was made by NEC and the Motherboard was made by three Japanese guys in their basements. When it all got put together, Windows booted up. Because you could mix and match hardware that would run Windows, the price of the PC plummeted and Microsoft’s fortunes went in the reverse direction, straight up.
Meanwhile, back in college, I was becoming quite the computer enthusiast. My friends all knew me as ‘the computer guy’ and I had a long list of clientele who wanted me to type and print their reports for them. We even had drunken SimCity sessions that lasted until 5AM in my dorm room; my first exposure to the habit forming tendencies of good computer games. I was also messing around with my first real forays into programming. I took a few courses in school, but it was all Pascal and the like. I was more interested in Visual Basic and VBA, mostly because VBA was already built into Excel, so I didn’t have to spend money on a programming language client! When I dropped out of college in 1993, I was probably the most tech-savvy temp to ever hit the New York market! From there, it was a straight shot into becoming a Microsoft Office Trainer and then going full bore into software development as a career.
Around 1995, PC’s hit the tipping point of being embedded in popular culture. There were two real reasons for it. One was the release of Windows 95, which introduced the START button and generally made the desktop ‘pretty’. The release was monstrously huge, with people in Australia lining up overnight at computer stores to buy the first copies; sorta like camping out for a U2 concert. The second reason was the growing popularity of America Online. The marketing campaign which sent free trial discs to anyone and everyone exploded online usage, and by extension the internet, into the phenomenon it is today. Hard to believe it was barely 15 years ago, right? My internet connection went out for a week a little while ago, and I was completely lost. But I was more amazed at my dependency than anything else.
So I am indebted to Bill Gates. His vision forged an entire industry of guys like me, who extend and enhance existing applications to fill niche needs in niche industries. I owe him my career and I am ever thankful.
Thanks Bill and good luck!
P.S. Here’s a story that few know. When I was 18 and had just graduated High School, I wrote an application to apply for a job at Microsoft. It was 1990 and neither Microsoft nor Bill Gates were part of the public’s consciousness. I had no skills to speak of, nor any experience, but I had a burning desire to be a part of this…thing. This whole warm and wonderful mess of technology and business and pure nerd nirvana.
I was soundly rejected.