Innovation

The smartest thing anyone said about the end of the Bill Gates era

The Bill Gates era in the technology industry has come to an end. Despite all of the attention generated by Gates' official "retirement" from Microsoft, I only found one useful perspective on the issue.

The Bill Gates era in the technology industry has come to an end. Despite all of the attention generated by Gates' official "retirement" from Microsoft, I only found one useful perspective on the issue.

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With June 27, 2008 supposedly Bill Gates' last day as a full time employee at Microsoft as he prepared to dedicate his time to the Gates Foundation, the media swarmed around the story, writing retrospective pieces about the world that Bill Gates made and predictions about how a Gates-less Microsoft would act in the years ahead.

The frenzy got so bad that during the weeks surrounding Gates' retirement, tech journalist John Dvorak kept ranting about the thousands of redundant stories being published about what he considered a non-event (Dvorak believes it was a publicity stunt and that Gates will be back full-time in the future). Nevertheless, Dvorak's continual rants across various media outlets only added fueled the fire. Everyone had a story about Gates' retirement and many of them also had opinions about the Gates legacy.

Now that the dust has settled on Gates' retirement from Microsoft, I'd like to add one last opinion on the subject. Actually, I'd like to highlight the most intelligent opinion that I read during all of the frenzied coverage at the end of June.

Ironically, it came from The Economist in its article The Meaning of Bill Gates. It's ironic because in 1991 Gates said that he reads The Economist "cover to cover" every week, so it seems fitting that The Economist was the only publication to really get it right about Gates' retirement. The article ran in the June 28, 2008 issue and here are the most poignant quotes from the article:

Inevitability and temperament are two hallmarks of Gates the innovator. The third is the transience of all pioneers. The argument was brilliantly laid out by Clayton Christensen, of Harvard Business School. The perfecting of a technology by a well managed company catering to its best customers leaves it vulnerable to "disruption" by a cheaper, scrappier alternative that is good enough for everyone else...

Mr Gates had the good fortune to be perfectly suited for his time—but he is less well-equipped for the collaborative and fragmented era of internet computing. This does not diminish his achievement. Nor, as some would have it, does his philanthropy necessarily magnify it. Whatever the corporate-social-responsibility gurus say, business is a force for good in itself: its most useful contribution to society is making profits and products. Philanthropy no more canonises the good businessman than it exculpates the bad. In spite of his flaws, Mr Gates is one of the good kind. Some great industrialists, like Henry Ford, stick around even as the world moves on and their powers fail. Mr Gates, pragmatic to the end, is leaving at the top.

I'm not sure Gates is leaving on top — Microsoft probably peaked in 2006 before the launch of Vista — but this is pretty close to it. Gates has always known and feared that an upstart would do to Microsoft what Microsoft did to IBM. Linux was supposed to be that upstart, but it has since passed the mantle to Google.

Google has made Microsoft an underdog again, and that's a role that fits Bill Gates very well.  However, Gates has been through all of this before, and this time he's made it clear that he'd rather spend his time fighting malaria and other diseases than battling Google for dominance in cloud computing.

Nevertheless, although he may not be as well-suited or have the same powerful vision for the new collaborative age of computing, I still think Gates could ultimately find a new vision to inspire users and turn a profit for Microsoft. And, if Microsoft falters in the next couple years, I fully expect Gates to swoop back in and try to come to the rescue. John Dvorak and I do agree on that.

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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