I came across an interesting link on slashdot this morning, claiming that nobody is afraid of Microsoft anymore. It goes back to an editorial that compared Bill Gates to the Robber Barons of a century earlier, particularly J. D. Rockefeller.
Having had first hand experience in a company that was 10% owned by Microsoft, and started up primarily on MS co-founder Paul Allen’s capital, I’ve often made that comparison in my own head. Heck, my first job as a programmer at that company was to make a mass-mailer CD that would find Netscape on the user’s computer, move their book marks to our own branded version of IE, and delete Netscape. My next job was to make a customer billing data collecting web page that won’t work for Netscape users.
Yes, the Robber Baron comparison was on my mind. Before Rockefeller retired in 1910, he was accused of predatory behavior at every turn. In fact, he was largely responsible for the very laws that have been putting Microsoft in court repeatedly for the last two decades. At the time of his retirement, Rockefeller was vilified and hated by the vast majority of those who had had business dealings with him. He was absolutely ruthless, and not to be stopped by mere laws nor by concerns for ethical business practices. It was a legacy that Bill Gates mirrored nearly perfectly 100 years later.
The thing I hadn’t thought of so much is the way Rockefeller’s story ended. After conquering the world, so to speak, he became more interested in saving it. The year after Rockefeller retired, the Supreme Court voted to break up Standard Oil. By that time, its market share was already shrinking and Rockefeller was much more devoted to philanthropy than to business. His Rockefeller Foundation did a great deal of good for the world, and by the time he died, he was remember equally for his later generosity as for his earlier commercial treachery.
Hasn’t Microsoft changed since Bill Gates stepped down as CEO? Are entrepreneurs in the Valley still tossing and turning at night over the fear of Microsoft becoming interested in their business? Not, last time I checked. Is Microsoft attracting the best and the brightest talent? No. Google has taken on that role. Is Bill Gates still so fanatical about software, or is it only Steve Ballmer who’s involved enough to throw chairs at managers who resign?
This quote from the New York Magazine sums it up nicely:
But by the time I saw [Gates] a couple of years [after he stepped down as CEO], it was clear to all in the auditorium that software no longer got Gates’s juices pumping the way his work at the foundation did. Technology questions were answered quickly, without passion, whereas questions about global health elicited lengthy disquisitions full of detail and emotion. The way he talked about wiping out malaria was how he used to talk about wiping out Netscape.
Is he a Robber Baron to the end? For the first time in my life, I hope so.