Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bill Gates, man of the decade

[1939 Man of the Yar]Once upon a time, being named Time’s “Man of the Year” was a big deal in the U.S. (In some cases, the winner was “Woman of the Year” — as in 1936, 1975 and 1986 — but in a nod to political correctness, each man and woman got relabelled “person of the year” in 1999).

One of the ongoing controversies is that — since it began 1927 — the man/woman of the year was chosen as the one who “had the greatest impact on the news.” It’s hard to argue that names like Adolf Hitler (1938), Joseph Stalin (1939, 1942), and Ayatullah Khomeini (1979) didn’t have an impact on the news. There were also cover subjects who had both supporters and enemies, including every president from Roosevelt to the present.

[InfoWeek cover]I immediately thought of this duality — newsworthy whether good or bad — when, dashing through the library this afternoon, I saw the cover of the June 25 issue of Information Week. The cover illustration by Dale Stephanos deliberately evoked the package of stories about (as one headline put it) “Bill Gates’ Legacy: Tech Titan Or Tyrant?”

The good Gates story by John Foley began:

George Washington. Babe Ruth. Gandhi. Bill Gates? Say what you will about that bloated operating system Gates has been hawking for the past 25 years, history will show that Microsoft’s cofounder and chairman belongs among the world’s great champions and leaders. As he moves beyond Microsoft to throw his energies into philanthropy, Gates will be remembered as an inspiring technologist and brilliant businessman who jump-started the commercial software market and populated the world with nearly a half-billion PCs, unleashing a wave of personal creativity and productivity on a scale never before seen.

Gates’ postretirement biography will have its share of ugliness, too — a decade-long spat with the open source community, monopolistic business practices that culminated in a U.S. government-led antitrust trial, buggy software that was easily exploited — but those will be footnotes when all is said and done.
Meanwhile, colleague John Sloat emphasizes the flip side:
Certainly, Gates’ greatest legacy won’t be in terms of technological innovation. He didn’t invent the operating system, didn’t invent the word processor, didn’t invent the graphical user interface, and didn’t invent the Web browser. And neither did anyone else at Microsoft.

“Its genius has been in business and predation, not innovation,” wrote Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork and Kenneth Starr, the Whitewater prosecutor, in a Wall Street Journal editorial in July 2001. They were talking about Microsoft, but they might as well have been talking about Gates.
In addition to being brilliant, ruthless and filthy rich, Gates is a difficult person to briefly characterize. He created the idea of a mass market software industry. He crushed rivals through legal and other means. He will probably give more money to charity than anyone in world history.

I was appalled earlier this month when I read that some dim-bulb starlet put Gates on her “superhero team” (not that her other choices were much better). Gates is a tremendous success and an example of what a rich kid from Seattle can accomplish being in the right place at the right time, but I wouldn’t want him held up as a “hero” for young people.

But at the same time, any fair analysis of Gates would also have to consider the alternative. Would the world have been better off if IBM controlled PCs and delayed their adoption as substitutes for mainframes? Or if (as seems inevitable) there was an operating system monopoly — but instead of Gates, Gary Kildall or Ken Bowles had been the winner — would they have necessarily been any more benevolent despots?

The story of Bill Gates is a complex one. Among the most amusing aspects has been his ongoing rivalry with Steve Jobs, as captured in the made-for-TV movie Pirates of Silicon Valley. By the way, Gates has been on the cover of Time eight times from 1984 to 2005, including five times from 1995-1999. Jobs has only been featured five times — but he got there first, with his debut in February 1982.

If Gates sticks to his announced June 2008 retirement, Jobs may outlast him too. Whether or not the iPhone proves to be a success, I feel safe in predicting that a year from now the iPod will still be outselling the Zune.

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