As he logs out of Microsoft, it is easy to sit back and scoff at Bill Gates’ considerable achievements. Bill-baiting has been an old and popular sport. His critics trot out the usual long list of episodes when he misread technology trends. What they fail to mention is that Gates subsequently embraced these same trends better than any of his competitors. Adapting to change is not as easy as it seems. We have seen many shooting stars in these times of disruptive change; let’s admit it must have taken some skill to keep Microsoft on course through it all.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
True, Gates and his company have not been technological innovators. Little original stuff has come out of Microsoft’s labs. Others developed each of the elements that we see and use on our computers — graphical interface, spreadsheets, browsers and even the Internet. But Microsoft then put them in our computers.
It is also true that Gates has famously failed to read the future. His 1995 book, The Road Ahead, is a stunning case of myopia. Gates failed in this book to see the early signs of the greatest technological revolution of our times — the Internet. His 2004 prediction that spam mail would soon be history is something of a joke.
These criticisms miss the point. Gates is not a technological innovator, as Steve Jobs is. But few can match Gates’ ability to adapt to new stuff. That the operating system owned by his company has become the default of the computing world has undoubtedly helped him.
The Internet episode tells us a lot about Gates. A mere month after The Road Ahead failed to catch the importance of the emerging networked world, Gates sent out his famous memo, “The Internet Tidal Wave”, to employees. He then put the Internet at the heart of everything Microsoft would do subsequently.
Gates knew how to keep Microsoft afloat in the midst of storms of technological innovations, no mean achievement. Microsoft has often used its might to crush rivals, as what happened to Netscape in the browser wars of the late 1990s (but he now faces a more nimble rival in Google).
Gates is a poor prophet and a great manager, but he continues to be attracted by the charms of prophethood. He will now focus on the eponymous foundation he runs with his wife. He is also pursuing his latest grand idea, about “creative capitalism”. Given his record, we believe he will have more success with the former than the latter.
How will Bill Gates be remembered: as a prophet or a good business manager? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org