The Gates Transition
In an interview with the BBC which is being widely linked, I recently said “claims by Microsoft that people were buying their software because it was good are pretty self-serving.” The BBC didn’t run the rest of what I said about Microsoft’s success, probably because they were looking to find someone to set up opposite Bill. Fine. These days we have blogs, so here’s my unfiltered side of the story.
What I said to the BBC, as I’ve said on many occasions about Microsoft’s competitors, which was that 20-25 years ago none of us (Lotus included) applied the same combination of business and technical rigor as Microsoft, and we paid the price. Bill makes this point in his interview, and I agree. I also speculated that had Microsoft stayed inside the foul lines in its conduct it might well have triumphed anyway, but we’ll never know.
It’s classically Gatesian for Bill to emphasize how hard he tried to get Lotus to do a Windows version of 1-2-3 and omit entirely that he was leading Microsoft simultaneously in a massive effort to destroy Lotus 1-2-3 and all of the other competitive productivity applications he was evangelizing on behalf of Windows.
Lotus was in a tough spot in the transition from DOS, and neither strategy of supporting IBM OS/2 (which it did – though after my tenure at the company) or moving quickly to support Windows (which it did not) was a strong one. As I said, Microsoft had the strategic upper hand and the will to exercise it, through its control of the operating system and its knowledge of what to do with that advantage, while I was CEO (through 1985) and afterward.
I have tremendous respect for what Bill and Melinda have chosen to do with the great wealth that Microsoft afforded. The Gates Foundation is tackling some huge challenges in global health with courage, innovation, and persistence, the same qualities which represented Microsoft at its best. But it doesn’t mean that the great Gates fortune was acquired in an entirely fair way or that Bill should be held up uncritically as a model of a successful businessman for doing so. To do so is to rewrite history and endorse a way of doing business which is harmful both to consumers and markets.
To judge from his speech at the 2008 World Economic Forum, Bill has begun to rethink some of his business philosophy, motivated by an interest reducing global inequality. “Creative capitalism takes this interest in the fortunes of others and ties it to our interest in our own fortunes in ways that help advance both.”
As Bill completes his transition from being singularly focused on winning at business to solving global problems, including those caused or exacerbated by a win-at-all-costs mentality, a fitting close would be his taking responsibility for the ways Microsoft’s success failed to live up to the higher standard he now espouses.