Jonathan Gatlin, Bill Gates: The Path to the future. (New York: Avon Books, 1999)214 pages.
Book Review by Ozodi Osuji
This book is not an authorized biography; that is, Bill Gates did not seek out Jonathan Gatlin and ask him to write a biography of him, as Steve Jobs had asked Walter Isaacson to write his biography; Steve realized that he was dying and wanted someone to write about his history; Bill is still around and kicking and has no need for someone to write his history; his story is still a work in progress.
Gatlin did what many journalists do, put together snippets of information he gathered from here and there on Bill and published it as a book. There are many such books on Bill but I chose to use Gatlin’s book as a point of departure.
Strictly speaking, I am actually not restricting my comments to Gatlin’s book; I write about Bill from the wealth of information about him out there.
Like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates was born in 1955. Unlike Steve who came from a working class background, Bill came from an upper middle class background; his father was a well-established attorney and his mother was from a moneyed family. Bill attended the best schools in his world, including the prestigious Lakeside high school, a private secondary school for the children of the wealthy in the Seattle area.
At age twelve, Bill, like many upper middle class children exhibited neurotic issues. He cursed his mother and generally seemed uncontrollable. Naturally, he was sent for therapy. The therapist, psychologist working with him threw up his hands in the air and advised his parents to accept him as he is and not try to change him. He believed that the boy was extremely competitive and wanted to be number one in everything he did; he did not want any person to be ahead of him; he resented being number two. As for his shyness that could be attributed to Asperger and or schizoid personality, psychological states found in folks who are extraordinarily gifted in mathematics and physics and computers. So, let the boy be; give him space to do his mathematics and electronics, and that was exactly what his parents did. In America when middle class kids act out their parents send them to therapists; in the ghettos such kids do drugs and join gangs and wound up in jails.
While in secondary school it became apparent that Bill is gifted in mathematics (he placed in the top ten students in mathematics in the USA). While still in secondary school, he and his friend, Paul Allen began their life-long interest in software. Their particular bent is writing programs (software, not hardware part of computers). The pair wrote programs for many businesses in the Seattle area and tried to market them.
Paul is two years older than Bill and went off to college (Washington State University) while Bill was still in school and Bill would take the bus to visit his friend, hundreds of miles away at Pullman, Washington, so that both continued their writing programs and selling them to local businesses.
Upon graduation from secondary school Bill went off to Harvard University at Boston, Massachusetts. At college he did not appear much interested in his studies; he appeared more interested in playing poker games and making money from such endeavors. He would not study until a day or two before examinations and he would cram for the exam and managed to get along. He was not a star student.
By his second year in college, his friend, Paul had dropped out of school and secured a job in Albuquerque, New Mexico, writing programs for a small business startup. Bill would go visit his pal and eventually decided to join him, even though he had no employment. Bill dropped out of college and moved to New Mexico. He and his pal wrote programs (many kids were doing this sort of thing at that stage in the computer age, so they were not unique).
Paul Allen was the more wizardry in writing programs whereas Bill was more business savvy. Bill talked Paul to join him in starting their own business and market their programs to whoever wanted to have programs in his computers (through the 1970s the only way folks had programs was to hire some kid to write their programs for them, as opposed to these days where a business can buy a boiler plate program from the market place...for example, you can buy Quicken for your accounting needs but in the 1970s you had to bring a teenage computer geek/nerd to come write a program for your accounting department. Bill and his friend capitalized on that market and wrote and sold programs to local businesses in the New Mexico area.
In 1977 Steve Jobs and his friend, Steve Wozniak had come up with Apple computer and the world was their oyster. Everybody who was everybody in the computer world was talking about the new personal computer that the two Steves came up with and, naturally, Bill and Paul went and took a look and realized that personal computers is the way to go. The two pairs, Jobs and Wozniak and Bill and Paul became friends. Bill and Paul helped the two Steve’s (who were very good in hardware) write the software in their Macintosh computer. In the process Bill and Paul were well educated on hardware and the two Steve’s were well educated on software (they had a symbiotic relationship).
In 1980 the two Steve’s went public with their new company, Apple Computers (which Steve Jobs named from working at his friend’s apple farm in Portland, Oregon). The two Steves became instant celebrities and millionaires and showed the possibilities of what kind of money kids could make from this computer thing.
Bill and his friend by then had not even had a name for their partnership and in 1984 decided on the name Microsoft and went public, too.
Bill had business savvy and would buy programs from whoever came up with one that he felt could improve their business. Thus, he paid $50, 000 for a BASIC program and improved on it and marketed it to IBM who then was the behemoth in producing mainframe computers but who was now scared shitless by Apple and wanted to get into the PC business and was looking for software for its PC dreams.
Bill sold the BASIC program he had bought and improved to IBM for a whopping $250,000 dollars and extracted a contract from IBM for royalties on PCs containing their software that they sold.
IBM quickly overshadowed Apple and dominated the PC market. Other computer companies knowing the importance of IBM bought license of IBMs software and made their operating system compatible with IBM.
This meant that the more PCs IBM sold, Bill and Paul made money. In quick order they, like the two Steve’s became millionaires!
Bill and Paul were contacted by Apple to help improve their operating system. Having worked on Apple’s Macintosh, Bill and his friend improved on their software and came out with MS-DOS, software that quickly took over the PC market and made the pair the superstars of the new industry (Apple, of course, accused Bill of stealing his ideas...Steve Jobs had it fixed in his mind that Bill Gates is a thief, yet he worked with Mr. Gates!).
By 1987 Microsoft had upgraded its MS DOS to what it began calling Windows. Those who were using Apple noticed the similarities in the operating systems and Sculley who had ousted Steve and was now running Apple sued Microsoft for stealing his company’s software.
Let us say that programs are written in mathematical language and once a program is written computer hackers can quickly learn it, improve on it and run with it. Thus, most software writers are, if you insist, stealing each other’s equations and that was and still is the lay of the software land.
Clearly, Microsoft “borrowed” from Apple and Apple, in turn, had borrowed from Xerox (whom it had done some work for...for example, it borrowed Xerox mouse technology) and the story of mutual stealing continues. It is difficult to ascertain who first came up with an idea in the ideas driven world of computers.
Bill developed a penchant for scouting for new and better programs, buying them, improving them and using them to make his windows so indomitable that by the 1990s over 90% of PCs was running windows software.
Microsoft had market share dominance and that made Bill and Paul instant billionaires (Paul developed a form of cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, and after two years of treatment decided that he needed to get out of the eighteen hours work days that characterized Microsoft frenetic work place and left Microsoft’s day to day work ...he remained on the company’s board and started other business and is today a billionaire, only a few billions shy of his pal, Bill).
While Microsoft’s star was rising and shining Apple was dimming. Apple was then a supernova in the making. By the early 1990s Apple was looking for someone to buy it or else it would go out of business. Naturally, many an Apple CEO was fired and new ones tried with the hope that he would jumpstart the moribund company.
A new Apple president, Amelio, consulted Steve Jobs and asked him to become a special adviser for Apple. Steve extracted a contract that essentially made him to do things his way. He contacted his friend and foe, Bill Gates for financial help and Bill shelled out a chomp change of $150 million dollars to Apple (at that time, Microsoft had cool $9 billion dollars in its corporate savings, so $150 million dollars is chomp change for it).
Whether that loose change made a difference or not for Apple does not matter; what counts was that Steve was back and was in charge. In quick succession Steve came out with new products, such as iPod, iPhone, iPad, iTunes etc.’; by 2010 Apple had returned to being the largest computer company in the world; indeed, it was the largest corporation in the world!
The cutthroat rivalry between Apple and Microsoft continues.
By 1993 the Internet (which the US defense department had developed in 1969) took the world by storm. Additionally, some fellows working at the European center for particles physics near Geneva had come up with the World Wide Web, making it possible to network computers all over the world.
Bill and his company initially did not appreciate the transformative nature of the Internet and did not pay much attention. Instead, they pursued Al Gore’s much ballyhooed Information superhighway chimera, seeking for a way to connect computers to televisions (as I write, that baby has not been birthed).
By 1994 it was clear to all with eyes to see, even to the myopic Bill that the Internet was the way to go. Frenetic efforts were made by computer geeks everywhere to design ways to interface the Internet. Venture capitalists were funding Internet start-ups (until the bubble popped in the late 1990s).
Bill looked for folks with programs that could do the job and bought one from a Seattle area start-up and hired its developer to become his vice president for research.
Software writers everywhere were coming up with the means to surf the Internet (Microsoft had “borrowed” Apple’s Mouse and some say its windows from Apple, too).
For a while Netscape was the leader in how to access Internet technology. In time Bill’s research crew came up with his Internet explorer and bundled it into his Windows.
Since many computers had Windows as their operating systems that meant that Bill had, in effect, killed his competitors Internet connection technologies. Naturally, complaints were lodged and the Federal Trade Commission and, indeed, the Attorney General of the USA launched investigations. Bill was in and out of court for at any moment several law suits were going on against Microsoft.
Deals were made behind closed doors. Accommodations were made and in the end Microsoft Explorer appear to have chased its competitors out of the market (Netscape and American on-line are seldom heard from these days).
Later on, there was a new battle regarding Internet search engines. Yahoo (started by a Stanford University kid, Yang), for a while, appeared dominant in this war. Google joined the fray. Microsoft had to do something about search engines. How?
Do the research. Okay. But others already had good products in the market. Why not steal their ideas and that failing that take them over in a hostile manner? Thus, Bill tried a hostile takeover of Yahoo (offered it several billion dollars to self its business to Microsoft). Yahoo resisted; Microsoft did come up with its own search engine device but it is not as popular as Yahoo’s.