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I Am Skooter
So here's us, on the raggedy edge.
There are maybe 10 or 12 / things I could teach you / after that you're on your own
— A.C. Newman, There are Maybe 10 or 12
June 17, 2006
Bill Gates, Microsoft & the end of the Homebrew

Bill Gates announced his retirement a few days ago — or, more accurately, a schedule for his retirement.

This is the single biggest moment in business of the last decade, in my opinion. It’s more significant than the collapse of Enron and Worldcom

I’ve spent the last couple of days muling over what it means, chatting with people who work at Microsoft — with varying degrees of loyalty — and generally considering where we head now (whoever we is, anyway.)

The question I keep coming back too — and this says a lot about my personal bias — is what does this mean for Steve Jobs?

One way to phrase this question is to ask “Does this mean Steve Jobs wins?” I have done this, and in general I think the answer is yes…but it depends on how you define “win” of course.

Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Bill Gates were all around during the days of the “Homebrew Computer Club.” These guys…these nerds with soldering irons got together about 30 years ago and literally lit the spark that changed the world.

Those early years were interesting and exciting, with Apple and Microsoft the most enduring legacies. For years Apple hardware competed with IBM hardware running Microsoft software. We stared at green screens, clicked away on keyboards and typed archaic commands. Email was a luxury for the few, as was networking.

And then came the Macintosh.

It’s often been said that Steve Jobs didn’t invent the Macintosh and was, in fact, initially opposed to it until he finally took credit for it. I’ve got no problem believing this, but there’s little doubt that the second mass wave of computer development was started by Apple under the leadership of Steve Jobs.

And then came Windows.

When mouse based interfaces became the dominant reality, Microsoft finally started working on Windows. Not a serious competitor as a graphical operating system until version 3.0, Windows provided businesses with what they needed: a path forward from DOS without buying all new hardware.

Like it or not, Windows led to a situation in the late 1980s where the death of Apple was almost imminent. Despite brilliant technological leaps like the Newton, Apple rapidly slid towards irrelevance. Under the leadership of Gil Amelio, death seemed imminent.

During this time, Steve created NeXT and a viable vision for a new computer. These machines were beautiful, offered a true Object Oriented Operating System and were built on a proven solid Unix core. In 1989 Byte magazine raved about the Cube.

Enter iMac With the media on a Macintosh death watch, the unthinkable happened: Apple bought NeXT to create a new version of the platform. At the time I thought this was a nice move…I was working in finance on Bay Street and the manager of our major technology fund thought I was a fool and Apple would die. He figured it was a waste of money.

Unthinkably, Steve Jobs came back to Apple and introduced the iMac. Candy coloured computers running the same old software that was completely useless for business. With the Internet becoming increasingly important I was using Linux for a while and was deeply frustrated with the aging Mac OS.

Windows, meanwhile, revved up from 3.0 to Windows 98 and Windows NT. NT was a decent operating system but did little to address the issue of usability. It was, however, installed in millions of workstations. With over 90% market share, it looked like Windows had won.

As it turned out though, people loved those candy coloured computers. They sold well enough to keep Apple viable until the next change.

Mac OS X and Windows XP Mac OS X hit the streets with much fanfare. It was a huge move forward.for the Mac, but initially was pokey and slow. It also had a habit of crashing a bit more often than rumours suggested. Less than Windows XP to be sure, but it was still problematic enough to be painful. Steady improvement happened though while Microsoft created a road map to the update from XP — Windows Vista.

While Apple, under the leadership of Steve Jobs yet again, steadily improved their operating system Microsoft, under the leadership of Bill Gates and his brash partner Steve Ballmer, continued to push back the release date for Vista. Vista was increasingly the greatest piece of vaporware in history.

None of this mattered though, in part because of the iPod. The iPod will, more than any other device in history, be remembered as the device that pushed invisible computing forward. Cell phones really preceeded it, but they sort of took a stealth approach. The iPod was always very clearly a computer device, but it was just…there.

The iPod was just the latest stroke of genius from a Steve Jobs led Apple in a long line of strokes of genius. Much more so than OS X, it brought success back to Apple, and firmly ensconced Steve atop the Silicon Valley pyramid.

Bill Gates’ resignation comes when Steve is on top and the incredibly slipping release schedule for Vista has led to more bad media coverage than is health for any organization. The failure of Xbox to make a significant dent in Playstation 2’s sales remains a hurdle, although Xbox 360 is a clear leader of the home gaming pack right now in technology if not sales. Microsoft’s miserable failure in competing with the iPod is an ongoing embarrasment, exaccerbated by the increble popular of white headphones on Microsoft’s campus.

Microsoft’s 90% market share is often cited as certain evidence that the battle has been won, and that Microsoft won it.

As transforming as the last 30 years have been, the next 30 are likely to be more so. The pace of change in technology never ceases to amaze me, and just when I think I’ve figured it out something happens.

More often than not, that something comes from the direction of Cupertino and not Redmond.

Bill Gates’ departure is a moment in history and a tipping point in the world of computer software. For the time being, Steve Jobs gets to enjoy his status as Last Man Standing of the original Hombrew crowd. It’s a brief moment of victory in a business that does not often allow for such brief moments.

I don’t suspect Steve will spend too much time gloating — he’s probably spending a great deal more working on the next insanely great thing.

Posted by skooter at 10:24 PM This entry is filed under Technology.
This entry is tagged: Apple, Microsoft, Operating sytems, Usability

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