On the back of the official announcement of Bill Gates’ last day as a full time Microsoft employee, this thought-provoking article by Philip Copeman, who is the Project Leader of TurboCASH Accounting – “the worlds leading Open Source Accounting package.”
Regardless of which side of the open source / proprietary software fence you sit, it’s worth a read:
Bill Gates – my part in his downfall
Have you noticed a spring in the step of every software developer this week? Bill Gates retires Friday as head of Microsoft – everyone else in the Software Development Business moves one step up the ladder. The question we should ask about Gates leaving the industry is, is this the the first of the lights being switched off at Microsoft or is this simply the end of an era?
When people ask me about Bill Gates, even though I only met him once on an elevator in Las Vegas, I have to say that he has always been there. I feel that I have run a parallel life to his, except with the advantage that I did not have to go to all those meetings in China. What? You might reasonably ask, how can you compare yourself to one of the richest men in the World? To understand how we, Software Developers think of ourselves, you need to understand that primarily this is an art form. Making money is easy in the Software Development Business. If you focus on a niche, take ownership of the code and have the technical insight, you will almost certainly prevail. This is not the same as installing or distributing someone else’s software, there you are always vulnerable. For Software Developers, program development is the core of what we do. Business is a side show. I am sure that given a spliff and a cold beer, Gates would have to admit that the biggest regret he has about his career must be that he simply didn’t devote enough time to programming. I know that it is my regret.
In 30 years of the software business I have basically developed financial modeling systems, CAD packages and accounting systems. In all of these developments, I have never thought of myself as a financial accountant, an engineer or a bookkeeper. I am a programmer. It is not the thrill of accounting that drives me, but the excitement of a database and watching how, even in the hands of a Muggle, it still gobbles up data in thousands of different situations, languages, currencies and countries and spews out reports that sometimes even balance. Well thats in my mind. In reality I am probably not much better than Gates – a software salesman.
When I first Open my eyes to personal computers 30 years ago in 1979, Gates is already there with his Basic interpreter on Apple computers. At that time we have excitement in the software industry that you would associate today with industries like social networks or World of Warcraft clans. Even though there are big players like Apple and Hewlett Packard in the hardware business, software is run by Geeks. No one interested in real business action can take his eye off the tin.Gates almost single handedly invents the idea of the Geek turned Suit. Gates can straddle the world of loops and strings with phone calls and sales contracts. Our bible is PC Magazine and Gates is our first prophet. We wait eagerly each month for the latest issue and devour it cover to cover. Products win market share by the sheer audacity of their innovation. Once a year we gather in Las Vegas at Comdex for a sales convention, but development is still our religion. This is where the famous mantra, “Build it and they will come” is first spoken by Gates. We rewrite the rules of business. The upward sloping supply curve of economics 101 is scraped. Here is a an industry in which for the successful, blue sky is the limit. We are on a pilgrimage to change the world.
Woe – the Buddha is killed on the side of the Road – it is Gates himself that creeps out at three o clock in the darkness with the kitchen knife to do the deed. First it is Apple DOS, then it is DRDOS, then Word Perfect, dBase, Lotus, Novell, Borland and later Real Networks and the worst of them all – Mozilla.
When we awake in the morning we find Microsoft has changed from being the Champion of Change and the star of the Geeks. Gates now looks and talks like The Man. He is wearing a suite and having dinner with the President. And worse, we have all followed him. The idea is simple – build a road on the software highway and get an ever increasing number of users to use it. Then build a tollgate and control the fees. Those that pay the fees come through and get an opportunity to pay at the next gate. Those that refuse go back 30 miles and take the scenic route.
By lunchtime we are all copying him. We hang up our jeans and put away our compilers. Sure we still eagerly came to work, but we are no longer coding. Instead of working in the lab at night, we are sending off emails from foreign hotels and dining with distributors. We are no longer arguing with programmers, we are arguing with bankers and accountants. Do we make millions? Sure we make millions, but millions doesn’t bring you the same buzz as the click at the end of a 250 000 line compile.
Darkness descends on the land and evil rides out in broad daylight on the backs of giant black bats. Innovation is stifled. To Pascal Developers, Visual Basic masquerades as a 32 bit compiler, running on a 16 bit operating system, powered by an 8 bit chip using 4 byte code from a 2 bit company that can not stand 1 bit of competition. The stories are too numerous to tell in this short space, but my personal experience is to witness the demise of DRDOS. In 1990 this is a fine operating system that competes handsomely with DOS. We run a great business distributing DRDOS in South Africa for Digital Research. Windows is simply a program that runs on top of DOS. Suddenly our users begin getting messages from their copies of Word “Unknown system error – change your Bios”. By the time that it is proved that Microsoft had wickedly installed these error messages into the Office Software, Gates is at the top of his world dominance and the matter is settled for a mere $ 100 Million. The country I live in, South Africa, goes from having an innovative software industry in the early nineties to become a nation of installers, with a $1 Billion annual bill in software license fees.
I lick my wounds and move into the market for accounting packages, an area that escapes Microsoft domination, partly because it does not attract sufficient revenue and because the US Department of Justice steps in to block the Intuit takeover bid. Mostly though it is because it requires local customization and Microsoft’s slow licensing methods can’t keep up with the turnover in technical updates.
In secret cells, the underground resistance fights back. There are a few sanctuaries for independence. Small teams of developers huddle together and working in clandestine cells develop a distributed system that cannot be centrally attacked by the Microsoft way. A new order of Open Source plots and builds the plumbing that will drive the biggest innovation to escape MS desktop dominance – The Internet. One shudders to think what might have happened if this too had fallen into the hands of Gates. There but by the Grace of God go we.
You may feel that I plot a legacy here for the world richest Software Developer that is both unfair and built only on professional jealousy. Microsoft has after all done much other than simply Windows and Office. What about Xbox, Flight simulator, Media Player, Internet Explorer and SQL Server? The truth is that Microsoft IS largely just Windows and Office and these HAVE singularly gone really slowly over the last 15 years. Arguably the last “wow” product that Microsoft released was Windows 95. Am I mistaken that you are more likely to hear about Microsoft in a high profile legal case or in a takeover than linked to an innovation? Even with Billions committed annually to Research, raving new product releases are rare.
This is why Microsoft now finds itself out of step with the new world. Innovation is now from server side Wizards who were toddlers when I met Gates on the elevator in Las Vegas. It is these new entrepreneurs that now carry the spirit that Gates and I had when we started out 30 years ago. While the first Internet bubble was driven by our generation, driven by our driving desire to be Internet billionaires and popped by the market, the second boom is impervious to economics. It is happily continuing in the middle of a world economic crisis. The principles behind Google, Yahoo and Facebook, and the plethora of Open Source products like TurboCASH do not drive at dollars, that just happens naturally. The core desire is to change the world. One too many meetings inChina has left Gates and the software dinosaurs of our generation, flatfooted in the face of this economic paradox.
Will Gate’s leaving change anything at Microsoft? I doubt it. Expect to see Microsoft move more and more towards the destiny of similar companies like IBM. Accountants and Marketers unable to technically innovate, pouring over the intellectually taxing job of extracting ever higher revenues from products that are in the downward phase of their life cycle. Expect them to have the same inability to purchase that innovation externally. This is no clearer shown than in the recent failure of Microsoft to take over Yahoo. One could only feel for Jerry Yang caught in the lights between Microsoft and the shareholders simply unable to understand that the energy behind Yahoo was never based on the cashflow. What other explanation could they put on why their CEO is driven to a deal with Google, their greatest competitor? Truly the rules of engagement have changed.
Bill Gates is leaving Software Development to follow charitable work. In truth he left real programming a long time ago. In his new role he wants to help upliftAfrica. The best thing that he could do for the good of the world is help ridAfrica of the enslavement to Windows and Office that he was instrumental in creating. So rather than spending a million dollars to cure malaria, help us get off the Billions that we spend annually on outdated Microsoft software licenses and we will spend the savings on malaria ourselves.
As for me? I would like to think that I have escaped the world that Gates built. The TurboCASH Accounting project is a widespread, self sustaining, Open Source project that grows in revenue and stature daily. We save users Millions each month as they install our Open Source alternative. Each month that goes buy I get stronger and more influential in the Software Development Business and I am spending more time programming again. And to add to that on Friday I just went up one step in the ladder of the Software Development Business. Can’t you see the spring in my walk?
Thanks to Barrie for the tip.
What do you think?