Bill Gates Guide to IT Success

Peter Coffee: One techie's take on the Microsoft chief's recent 42,000-word written testimony in the Microsoft antitrust case.

Im sorry that this letter is so long—but if Bill Gates is willing to explain his views of the origins and prospects of this industry, in forty-two thousand carefully chosen words, how can anyone who cares about this business not take the time to read what he has to say? And take from it a perspective on how to succeed in the business that this is becoming?

Im neither a fan nor a foe of Gates or his company. I just want to be able to buy tools that work, in a way that feels natural to me, and I want to see many companies in a position to compete for the privilege of giving me what I want. Its a purely selfish doctrine, whatever long-run benefits it might afford to everyone else: Adam Smith, with his 1776 economic notion of the "invisible hand," was no fool. And I found points worthy of both agreement and dispute in Gates manifesto, submitted as written testimony in last weeks court proceedings.

In paragraph 33 of Gates remarks, we see the current situation of the PC industry described as "a cyclical downturn." Yeah, like the "cyclical downturn" in sales of full-size station wagons, a decade or two ago. Remember the Ford Country Squire? Do you think its coming back? Does anyone really think that PCs will be the focus of enterprise IT spending when budgets next turn upward?

If your IT plans for the next spending cycle look just like your last wave of spending, with Pentium 4s in place of Pentium IIIs, then you need to think a little farther outside the beige box.

In paragraph 28, Gates indulges in a revisionist retrospective concerning the role of MS-DOS in establishing the PC platform. "MS-DOS was the same on each line of PC from different OEMs, masking differences in the underlying hardware platform," he asserts. Oh? Then why did Lotus Development have to produce a DEC Rainbow version, or a TI Professional version, of its 1-2-3 spreadsheet software? Could it be that IBMs disclosure of key hardware details, first cloned by Compaq and then by many others, had at least as much to do with Microsofts success? Not to mention the decision by Lotus to write 1-2-3 for DOS, rather than CP/M?

This is not just a matter of history. Its a matter of understanding that software isnt everything. Outstanding hardware companies like Apple or Sony or Sharp are more important now than ever as intelligent devices start to look more like consumer electronics, fed by a communications and entertainment infrastructure, rather than being bought like major appliances for homes or for enterprise desktops.

And in the new IT, the operating system is no longer a brand-name product.

In paragraph 44, Gates scores a significant point against Sun with his observation that ECMA has adopted Microsofts C# programming language as a standard, while Sun has failed to yield control of Java to any formal standards body. The Java Community Process has achieved considerable credibility, but theres nothing like the bragging rights that come from actually giving up the baby for adoption, so to speak.

Enterprise IT planners must wrestle with the questions of what makes a standard, and what are the trade-offs between protecting intellectual property (to stimulate innovation with the prospect of licensing revenues) and maximizing ease of competitive market entry with royalty-free licensing of key standards (umm, to stimulate innovation). Microsoft, meanwhile, is perfectly capable of working both sides of this street: While Gates extols freely licensed standards in paragraph 451 ("Microsoft is a leading contributor to the development of industry standards"), his company is also preparing to collect tolls on the info superhighway.

I wont choke your in-box with the book-length analysis that Gates testimony could easily support. Take some time to skim it yourself. Its almost a Rorschach inkblot test of IT attitudes, in the sense that what we see in his comments may say a lot about what we ourselves believe and desire.

The one final thing that I want to share from my own reading is that I see no sign of any admission that Microsoft might have done anything wrong—let alone anything that ought to be actually punished. In paragraph 9, for example, Gates says that the proposed remedies "would deprive Microsoft of much of the economic value of its two most important products, Windows and Office." Well, when you get rich by unlawful conduct, the courts tend to take away those gains, and the courts have ruled that Microsoft broke the law. Thats no longer in dispute. The only issue that remains is that of remedy, so lets not retry the case.

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