Bill Gates: Software Strongman
He controls something the world's PCs can't live without. But he's neither as good nor bad as the hype
BY DAVID GELERNTER
If we are talking creativity and ideas, Bill Gates is an American unoriginal. He is Microsoft's chief and co-founder, he is the world's richest man, and his career delivers this message: It can be wiser to follow than to lead. Let the innovators hit the beaches and take the losses; if you hold back and follow, you can clean up in peace and quiet.
Gates is the Bing Crosby of American technology, borrowing a tune here and a tune there and turning them all into great boffo hits--by dint of heroic feats of repackaging and sheer Herculean blandness. Granted he is (to put it delicately) an unusually hard-driving and successful businessman, but the Bill Gates of our imagination is absurdly overblown.
Yet we have also been unfair to him. Few living Americans have been so resented, envied and vilified, but in certain ways his career is distinguished by decency--and he hasn't got much credit for it. Technology confuses us, throws us off the scent. Where Gates is concerned, we have barked up a lot of wrong trees.
A 1968 photo shows Bill as a rapt young teenager, watching his friend Paul Allen type at a computer terminal. Allen became a co-founder of Microsoft. The child Gates has neat hair and an eager, pleasant smile; every last detail says "pat me on the head." He entered Harvard but dropped out to found Microsoft in 1975.
Microsoft's first product was a version of the programming language BASIC for the Altair 8800, arguably the world's first personal computer. BASIC, invented by John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz in 1964, was someone else's idea. So was the Altair. Gates merely plugged one into the other, cream-cheesed the waiting bagel and came up with a giant hit.
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