The genius of Bill Gates: Steal it first

As late as about 1994, people like say, Bill Gates, had no interest in the Internet. He wouldn’t even go to conferences about it, because he didn’t see a way to make a profit from it. (Chomsky, interview with Corpwatch, May, 1998)

After Ringo Starr, the luckiest man alive
The above quote, which I cannot source beyond what I have there, has stuck with me over the years. It indicates that perhaps Bill Gates is no guru, and falls in line with Nassim Taleb’s musings in his book The Black Swan that there isn’t as much financial genius in the world as we like to think, but rather a whole lot of luck. Maybe Gates just got lucky.

This is taken from the book The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow, p207 forward:

I was watching late-night television recently when another star, though not one from the entertainment world, appeared for an interview. His name is Bill Gates. Though the interviewer is known for his sarcastic approach, towards Gates he seemed unusually deferential. Even the audience seemed to ogle Gates. The reason, of course, is that for thirteen years straight Gates was named the richest man in the world by Forbes magazine. … And so when he was asked about his vision for interactive television, everyone waited with great anticipation to hear what he had to say. But his answer was ordinary, no more creative, ingenious, or insightful than anything I’ve read from a dozen other computer professionals. Which brings us to the question: does Gates earn $100 per second because he his godlike, or is he godlike because he earns $100 per second?

Mlodinow goes on to describe the origins of Microsoft. IBM, whose success was built largely on government subsidized research, had belatedly decided to get into the personal computer business, that bevvy of geniuses having dismissed the trend in its planning during the 1970’s. They did not even have a program to run a PC, and so approached Gates for some help. Gates didn’t have one either, and referred them to Gary Kildall of Digital Research Inc. Talks did not go well between Kildall and IBM, and another IBM employee, Jack Sims, approached Gates again. He still did not have a program, but began to show his true “genius.” He knew someone who did.

The system Gates had in mind might well have been based on Kildall’s work. Gates asked if IBM wanted him to go get it, or if IBM would do that dirty work itself. Sams, understanding what was going on, insisted that Gates go get it, hint hint.

Gates did, for $50,000 (or, by some accounts, a bit more), made a few changes and renamed it DOS (disk operating system). IBM, apparently with little faith in the potential of its new idea, licensed DOS from Gates for a low per-copy royalty fee, letting Gates retain the rights. DOS was no better – and many, including most computer professionals, would claim far worse – than say, Apple’s Macintosh operating system.

Ergo, the conundrum so many of us have faced over the years – crappy PC technology dominates the market because IBM had market power at that time. “People bought DOS because people were buying DOS.” Gates and Microsoft amassed a huge war chest of money, and from there started to buy up competing companies and to reverse engineer technology, including Apple’s icon-orientated home screen so common now on computers.

With the internet, which Gates pooh-poohed, came the need for a means to access the web, and with some government funding, the Netscape Navigator was born.

No, it's not IE - it's Netscape!
Microsoft wanted none of that, and pushed its own product, the Internet Explorer on the market in a now famous scheme whereby IE was pre-installed on new PC’s. Netscape, long gone now, would sue and win a settlement, but IE by default became the market standard. Mozilla’s Firefox, which I use, is a superior product, but IE is the only program on any new PC that I have purchased over the years.

My first computer was and Apple IIe, and I hadn’t a clue how to make it work. It sat there. I set it up to download stock quotes for my then boss, and each time we did a download, the company providing the quotes charged us. When the bill came through, it said we were downloading “recipes,” and my mercurial boss shut us down, saying that she had more important things to do than to provide cooking ideas to her staff.

Later came VisiCalc, and at last I could put the computer to work in a practical way. Later still I bought a program called “Appleworks,” a combined spreadsheet/word processor/database. It was a remarkable program for its time. My employer owned around a thousand mineral deeds in various western states, and with Appleworks I was able to input all of the information on those deeds using over twenty parameters, and thereafter quickly locate any one for any reason. All of this before Lotus and the crappy Microsoft Office system, which now dominates the spreadsheet market. That’s becuase PC’s dominate the market.

Bill Gates is no genius, and perhaps that’s the reason he feels a need to give away so much of his fortune. If only the rest of the financial world would see it that way too. In mutual funds, for instance, given that there are thousands of them, it goes with out saying that maybe a hundred of them will outperform the others in any arbitrary period, say, a calendar year. The next year, it will be a different hundred. In the meantime the underlying companies whose stock make up the portfolios are working hard to develop products that might or might not tempt the market and create some success. No one knows which will survive or thrive. There are no geniuses. The future is just a damned mystery.

Wall Street financiers have worked a clever way around market uncertainty. Money itself has become the driving force, the thing that creates wealth. Speculators have devised financial products that are themselves considered commodities for trading without any underlying product or idea or entrepreneurial genius. It’s a house of cards, of course, and so collapsed in 2007-2008. It’s been rebuilt, and will likely collapse again, though I do not know the future. But as they say about North Dakota, there is no there there.

I was recently asked by our former landlord in Boulder about the future – what’s going to happen with the stock market, is the economy going to start ticking again. I informed her, with all the sincerity I could muster, that I had no clue. This left her cold, and no doubt she ran to a financial adviser for better advice. I sympathize, but life offers no certainties, no geniuses, and charlatans rule the financial world. The best thing to do is hope that you can pull a Gates, and get lucky.
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Update: No sooner is this post up than I learn that Microsoft is going to buy Skype. Apparently, the reverse engineering failed.

13 thoughts on “The genius of Bill Gates: Steal it first

  1. Where to begin??

    First off the title. Whenever I see something like “he stole it”, or “got lucky” I think about the extreme opposite. Take for instance Castro’s rise to power. Except in that case he killed his resisters and then stole their land and/or business.

    I also take exception to the term “people say”. There’s a glaring difference between what I comment to here and what is passed of as truth by some you aspire to or agree with. You know damn well if I’d had used, “people say” you’d jump on it promptly. Norm obviously fits that exception.

    Then the contradictions. Your title states thievery, then a few paras below you mention the $50K payment(or maybe more).

    “or maybe more”??? Another “they say”, perhaps?

    And the obligatory “govt. subsidized research” That one never gets old does it? Any thing that’s a success story or evil oil. Never used when describing Amtrak.

    The only thing ya got going for yourself here is govt/mega company bloat. Call it the cycle of life. IBM showed that it was past its prime, passed it’s innovation torch to Bill, who eventually will succumb to another upstart.

    Cycle of life Mark.

    Jealousy, unfortunately remains constant.

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    1. Where to begin?

      I did not say that there is no innovation. There’s scads of it. Fox Software (I still used Foxbase software – good stuff), Altamara, Aspect, WebTV, Hotmail … all innovators, all purchased by Microsoft. Counting Skype now, 128 of them.

      Apple is a true innovator, coming up with products that no one else even thinks of. We just bought an Ipad – amazing tool!

      Regarding Noam, I give him a pass on that one. He’s the most well-documented author/speaker I’ve ever encountered.

      Gates’ DOS system was not his invention, and his tweaking of an existing program speaks not of theft, but piracy with legal immunity due to the tweaking. That is Microsoft’s stock in trade – OPW – other people’s work. Did you hear the recent story where Google baited its search engine to see if Microsoft’s Bing was getting its results from Google? It was.

      Government subsidized research? You don’t think it exists? Ever heard of the defense budget? Do you know about IBM’s history? Do you know that when you fly on a passenger airline, you’re flying on converted bombers? Do you know about DARPA and the Internet?

      Passed the torch? Microsoft is not an innovator – it is a monopolizer. Other companies innovate. Not them.

      Where to end?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Apple is a true innovator, coming up with products that no one else even thinks of. We just bought an Ipad – amazing tool!”

    Good one. For those 600 Dollars that give me near to zero compatibility, little computational power and just a few apps and that are developed by other people, not Apple. Needless to say that MS had a tablet at hand way before Apple.

    MS is not the greatest company in the world. Far from it. But apple sucks a lot more and they are the true monopolizers with their i-Landscape.

    And I think it’s ridiculous to always doubt Gates genius. the man was on top of his game in many aspects, also in different areas and not just in MS. Few people just ace Harvards hardest undergrad math classes. Not jobs at least who dropped out of a mediocre college to sell software he didn’t develop at all (Woz).

    Stop the MS hat. They did many dubious things no doubt but Gates still deserves credit for shaping a computer landscape that could look a lot worse today.

    cheers
    Cat

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    1. I’ve lost my shine for Apple since writing this. The IPad is an annoying device in many ways, an advance, but not the destination. Jobs is gone, so that the non-creative people have taken over again, and predictably, all they can do is come out with new versions of old products.

      Regarding Gates, remember: Often people just get lucky. For example, there are thousands of mutual funds available to us. One of those funds has to have a better year than all of the others each year, and we automatically assign the word “genius” to the head of the fund that happens to be #1 that year. The following year, without fail, it disappears into the pack again. Gates happened to be the guy who caught fire at that time, but it he did not cause the revolution – it was all of the technicians, mostly working on defense contracts, that had reduced the microprocessor to the point where it could be put to use in a small machine. That work is ongoing.

      Notice that Microsoft has not come out with an innovative product in decades, but they have acquired companies that have.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So we agree on Apple here.

        I am no fan of Microsoft itself. I personally use Linux.

        I also agree about gates being “at the right place at the right time”. I still think he’s a highly intelligent person and think that its not enough to be “at the right place at the right time” a couple of times to achieve what he has achieved. Whether via admirable ways or not. He still managed to stay on top of the list for decades. Everyone still knows MS and has used it at some point. A place you don’t reach by sheer luck I think.

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        1. This is the essence of capitalism as we know it, to achieve a position of power and then use that power to hammer competition. Where competition cannot be hammered with monopoly power, you simply buy it up. That’s been MS’s great “genius” over the years – either clubbing competition like baby seals, or buying them up. It is not an innovative company. Never was. Remember that the Internet and the web browser were invented by government, not Microsoft.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Gates actually got started by dropping out of college and starting up his company by modifying and selling his/their Basic Programming language that he stole from the college, I call that thievery whether anyone else does or not, and it does not take a genius to reverse engineer another’s work, all it takes is studying and understanding of the algorithm and being unscrupulous enough to steal it in the first place, and with all of the other things, like his involvement in GMO production, Planned Parenthood, etc, I can see that his character is not without flaw.

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  3. Nice to see others express our collective frustrations
    The iPad, iPhone and early iPod changed the world more rapidly than any previous tools – Jobs type brains, like Ben Franklin’s , only appear once a century; I feel fortunate to have lived during his cycle of industry

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      1. And Tesla, that is another story where the government and powerful bankers were unscrupulous enough to use, abuse, and some believe possibly murder for profit.

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  4. One thing is for sure. When I bought my first IBM, it had nothing on it, only DOS, someone gave me the first version of windows (version 1.1, in 1984), on three floppy disks, a hopeless thing which crashed all the time, so I threw it away (should have kept it though). At the same time Apple had the Macintosh which did all kinds of things perfectly. (too expensive for my budget though)

    So I bought a compiler and made my own programs, better and better programs came out and I gave up programming myself, but I noticed one thing, over the years, if someone made a good program, not much later Microsoft would have something similar, initially much worse but they would buy up the company which made the original product or a ripped off version of an older version of that product.

    I agree with the article, although I don’t think Gates was lucky, he was a genius in copyright infringements and selling it as the best there was.

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