DigitalFriend Blog

December 2008

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly were missing from BBC documentary: 'Bill Gates: How a Geek Changed the World'

Wed, 24 Dec 2008 19:33:43 +1100

By: gosh'at'

While steering clear of the computer last month I happened across a BBC documentary on SBS (the multicultural channel - six billion stories) titled 'Bill Gates: How a Geek Changed the World ' by filmmaker Fiona Bruce, based on some frank interviews as Gates was set to step down from his company in mid 2008 and "get on with the job of giving away his billions", in his new career as philanthropist. It was largely a set piece really, including an interview with some commentator doing the foreshadowing necessary for a self-fulfilling prophesy with the line "Bill Gates wants to win a Nobel Peace Prize ... and more power to him", in reference to his crusade to conquer malaria and other deadly bugs, in the dark heart of Africa. His bad moments were cunningly turned into virtues by somebody in the process, for instance: a video snippet from his court appearances while fighting off the antitrust attempt to split-up Microsoft in 1998, during which his demure was cast as condescending, his stance uneasy and his answers during cross-examination as unnecessarily complex and defensive, had him faced with a question about: Whether making Internet software free (with Windows) would affect Netscape? and then him wisely replying (in the current context of Web 2.0 and the cloud-computing): "What is your definition of Internet software?", as surely as any software visionary would?

The program was meant to give a complete overview of the history of Gates+Microsoft rise (the identities merged, was a theme of the program) to his current status, from 17 y.o. high school computer wiz, warts and all; but for my money, it left out three significant milestones in his Microsoft era: one positive and one negative from the perspective of Microsoft, and the other about a grass-roots cultural transition:

The Good: In the coverage of bringing Windows 95 to the world (first 32-bit Win OS) on the heels of Windows 3.1 ("Windows 95 took Microsoft into the mainstream ... allowing them to dominate the market with Windows Office"), it quickly rushed on to the threat that the web browser presented to Microsoft's dominance of the industry in 1995, and the way that Gate saw this clearly and was able to turn a large juggernaut around on a dime to face it, with his "the web is a tidal wave" memo. It skipped something amazing about Microsoft in the process, something about them that only a crazy company would attempt: it was the actually transition they put in place for Windows 95 from Windows 3.1. They did it with backwards compatibility held high , in order to enable people to upgrade their existing hardware to the new OS, to let no customers slip through the cracks. There were hundreds of different brands of PC out in the marketplace and thousands of types and brands of expansion cards, meaning hundreds of thousands of combinations of hardware, across all of which Microsoft said, "Windows 95 will install and run on your old Windows 3.1 computer, period". Achieving that was no small feat, it was more like the one million technical steps that put man on the moon, which had given us the GANNT chart for project management in the process. Where Apple supercedes an old computer with a new one, lock stock and barrel, and you were simply expected to buy the new computer and use the old one for a door stopper, Microsoft was going to smoothly transition hundreds of thousands of different computer combinations, from an antiquated 16-bit operating system to a modern 32-bit operating system! I didn't believe it. Where I had many friends who did simply buy a new computer to run Windows 95 in the non-green Mac tradition, I was determined to go through the upgrade process and call their over-cocky-bluff. I had what I thought was the ultimate challenge for them: a 386 IBM clone, with the eight expansion slots filled to the brim with a variety of cards: a high-speed (56K;) fax/modem card, a specialized scanner card (bought when scanners cost $3000+), a Murrumbeena Network Card developed by local hardware+software wiz Phil Bertolus (which is a whole other story), a SCSI hard disk card, a serial mouse card, a good s-VGA graphics card, and several other cards to boot. Well, it took two tries, but 8 hours later, it worked - I managed to upgrade that grab-bag of chips, circuits and bits, from Windows 3.1 to Window 95, and it amazed me that I could! I marvelled at how crazy Microsoft as a large company was, in attempting such a mass-migration in the first place. I doubt whether there has been anything in the history of computing, before or since, that was so ' out-there ' in terms of holding on to and servicing an existing customer-base. Google be warned.

The Bad: Visual BASIC was Microsoft's Achilles Heal, and it was so, probably because Bill Gates himself loved the BASIC language that was closest to his own actual geek prowess as a programmer. They started with BASIC from which you could do OS-like file manipulation on floppy-disk-only 8-bit micros, they took it to Quick BASIC in the days of MS-DOS supremacy, and then to Visual BASIC in the Windows era, and they built up a huge end-user/programmer community in that long process. It didn't have the rigours of a formal language in any way or form, but they had the user base of enthusiasts enabling them to ignore any such academic flak.

But then they did two things wrong, which cost Microsoft big time: they didn't do a parallel new modern Internet-savvy language that did have rigour, thereby leaving a gapping big hole in the professional and academic language markets which Java filled; instead, they tried to make Visual BASIC a rigorous object-oriented language, and in the process, alienated their own massive Visual BASIC user-base, who were largely a bunch of hackers, tinkers and end-users. Well, some long time later, they corrected the rigorous language gap via C# (but via a torturous path for all, see post); however, Visual BASIC could never go back to its roots and re-gather the hearts and minds of the end-users it had lost. What Microsoft had with their massive Visual BASIC user-base long ago, is now most parallel to the Flash end-user base down the road at Adobe (which incidently, they too are currently morphing into a more rigorous, professional language ... history repeating?), and C# is the late comer to the aging Object-oriented paradigm party.

The Ugly: When I say ugly, we are really talking here about awkward ugly duckling: Its about a cultural change in the school yard of our public schools. The nerd is now cool, and the glamorous sports star has become the dufus. Here, in a country that gathers more Olympic medals per capital than any other (except perhaps for New Zealand, who should have grabbed state-hood at Australian Federation, when they could have;), that transition is miraculous, and while Gates might not be held high by the new cool nerd kids themselves, the socio-economic mores of their parents has held some significant sway over them during this unlikely on-the-ground transformation, at a time when the planet needs more people using their heads than their arms and legs, than ever before .


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