Before 1981, no one even knew who Bill Gates was. Twenty-five years later, he is the richest man in the world, a world-class philanthropist, and certainly a contender for that dubious title of 'most hated'. How did he do it?
In 1981, when IBM decided to explore the marketing potential of the personal computer, Apple Computer, Inc. was already a five-year-old company. Microsoft had been founded a year earlier, in late 1975, and was producing a BASIC interpreter, written by Paul Allen and Bill Gates. Steve Ballmer had recently been hired by Microsoft to run the business side of things.
IBM was looking for an operating system for its IBM PC and came to Microsoft. Without a product, Microsoft turned to Seattle Computer Products, who subsequently received a total of $75,000 for what would become the core of MS-DOS. (There was a story floating around in the 1980's that the inventor of CP/M was also contacted but that he never responded to IBM's inquiries.)
Windows 1.0 first appeared in 1985 with a wide selection of mini-applications.
It wasn't pretty on a character-based monochrome display, and not nearly as complete as the Apple Macintosh which shipped the same year, but it was a beginning.
Version 2.11 would be the first commercially-successful version of the Windows. It shipped with IBM's newly announced PS/2 line in 1987. That same year, IBM and Microsoft announced the joint development of OS/2, as a replacement for PC-DOS (IBM's version of MS-DOS) – utilizing it's own Presentation Manager. This relationship with IBM would continue until 1990, when it would being to unravel over the relative success of Windows 3.0 over OS/2. While Microsoft continued to co-develop OS/2 through version 2. What was to become OS/2 version 3 instead became Windows NT 3. (Officially, Windows XP (SP2) is version 5.1 of Windows NT.) IBM went on to release their own in-house developed OS/2 Warp v 3 but it was too little, too late.
So how does this little history lead me to conclude that Bill Gates belongs on the list of those who have shaped IT? Just this …
It was Bill Gates' vision of a single operating environment which came with a wide variety of applications which anyone could use with minimal training that brought personal computing to the homes of hundreds of millions of people.
Did Bill Gates think of it first? No. The engineers at Xerox PARC thought of it first, when they integrated a computer workstation running under their own graphical user interface (GUI) with a wide variety of applications, with the mouse, and with their other invention — the Ethernet.
Did Bill Gates first bring it to the consumer marketplace? Nope. That was Steve Jobs, with the Apple Lisa in 1983.
So why Bill Gates? Because Bill Gates has made IT both accessible and cost-effective to most everyone …
Sure, Apple (the only one of those pioneering companies still in business) is still extolling the virtues of its elegant one-stop solution. But the Apple solution is still expensive by comparison:
Personal computer vendors routinely offer loss-leaders for $300 to $500 with typical configurations under $700 and there are dozens of small 'white box' vendors who offer 'roll your own' solutions which offer a level of flexibility available nowhere else. What's more, these solutions are ubiquitous to the point of being available in stores on most any street corner.
By comparison, a complete Apple system starts at $1300 and is only available from Apple or an occasional authorized Apple dealer — at full price.
Ironically, the ubiquity of Windows-compatible personal computers has also greatly enhanced the availability of Linux-compatible platforms. Making way for viable alternatives to Windows on identical hardware.
To be sure many, many people have contributed to the state of IT today but it is clear to me that Bill Gates has played a significant role in the evolution of IT and that contribution should not go unnoticed.