And yet we tend to overlook (in sizing him up) Gates' basic decency. He has repeatedly been offered a starring role in the circus freak show of American Celebrity, Julius Caesar being offered the Emperor's crown by clamorous sycophants. He has turned it down. He does not make a habit of going on TV to pontificate, free-associate or share his feelings. His wife and young child are largely invisible to the public, which represents a deliberate decision on the part of Mr. and Mrs.
If postwar America of the 1950s and '60s democratized middle-classness, Gates has democratized filthy-richness--or has at least started to. Get the right job offer from Microsoft, work hard, get rich; no miracle required. Key Microsoft employees pushed Gates in this direction, but he was willing to go, and the industry followed. The Gates Road to Wealth is still a one-laner, and traffic is limited. But the idea that a successful corporation should enrich not merely its executives and big stockholders but also a fair number of ordinary line employees is (although not unique to Microsoft) potentially revolutionary. Wealth is good. Gates has created lots and has been willing to share.
Today Gates, grown very powerful and great, sits at the center of world technology like an immense frog eyeing insect life on the pond surface, now and then consuming a tasty company with one quick dart of the tongue.
But the Microsoft Windows world view is dead in the water, and Microsoft has nothing to offer in its place. Windows is a relic of the ancient days when e-mail didn't matter, when the Internet and the Web didn't matter, when most computer users had only a relative handful of files to manage. Big changes are in the works that will demote computers and their operating systems to the status of TV sets. You can walk up to any TV and tune in CBS; you will be able to walk up to any computer and tune in your own files, your electronic life. The questions of the moment are, What will the screen look like? How will the controls work? What exactly will they do? and Who will clean up?
Microsoft? Maybe. On the other hand, being the biggest, toughest frog in the pond doesn't help if you're in the wrong pond. Some people have the idea that Microsoft is fated to dominate technology forever. They had this same idea about IBM, once admired and feared nearly as much as Microsoft is today. They had essentially the same idea about Japan's technology sector back in the 1980s and early '90s. It isn't quite fair to compare Microsoft to a large country yet. But Japan was on a roll and looked invincible--once. (Or, if you go back to Pearl Harbor, twice.)
As for Gates himself, he is no visionary; he is a technology groupie with a genius for showing up, for being at the right place at the right time. His secret is revealed in that old photo with Paul Allen. He is a man who likes computers very much. Not their intellectual underpinnings, not the physics or electronics, not the art or philosophy or mathematics of software--just plain computers. He's crazy about them. It seems like an odd passion, but after all, some people are crazy about Pop-Tarts. And Gates will be remembered alongside Pop-Tarts, in the long run, as vintage Americana, a sign of the times. A little on the bland side perhaps, unexciting, not awfully deep, not to everyone's taste, but not all that bad.
David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale University and author most recently of "Machine Beauty"
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