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MVP view on Gates' legacy: Geeks can be cool, too

As Bill Gates moves away from day-to-day participation in Microsoft, beginning in July 2008, it seems like a good time to consider Gates legacy as seen among the developer ranks his software supported. What emerges is a mixed, but largely positive view.

Microsoft started as a development tools company and many in the Microsoft development community believe that Bill Gates long-term commitment to development tools is what allowed Microsoft to prosper. That prosperity placed Gates' actions under scrutiny, and sometimes Microsoft developers found themselves cast as supporters of an 'Evil Empire.'

...[Gates] is one of the luminary motivating figures that shows that the geeks really will inherit the earth.
Rocky Lhotka,

As Bill Gates moves away from day-to-day participation in Microsoft, beginning in July 2008, it seems like a good time to consider Gates legacy as seen among the developer ranks his software supported. SearchWinDevelopment.com discussed Gates' legacy via email with several independent developers.

"Gates legacy is tied to his commitment to software tools. Microsoft made a decision early on that if it could get developers to the platform, the users would come," said Shawn Wildermuth, a Microsoft MVP and independent consultant. "While their development technology was not always at the forefront, his commitment to great developer tools is what brought the developers to the platform, which in turn brought everyone else."

Although developers benefit from the wealth of tools pushed out of the Microsoft machine, many believe that Gates' legacy lies in Microsoft's most popular products.

"As a developer, I'd love to say Gates legacy is Visual Studio and SQL Server or something else that is developer centric," said consultant, trainer and Microsoft MVP Benjamin Day. "But as far as market penetration goes, it is far and away Windows and Office. Just about everyone is running some flavor of Windows on their desktop and almost definitely have some version of Office (Excel, Word, Outlook) on their machine."

Still, development continued to receive Gates' personal attention to the end of his tenure. As corporate head, he set and re-set strategies, while watching the development details. This is rare in smaller companies, much less juggernauts like Microsoft.

"Gates' biggest contribution is behind the scenes," said Rockford Lhotka, principal technology evangelist at Magenic.

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"I have many friends in Microsoft, and I've worked for numerous companies in different fields. I have never personally encountered someone at Bill's level that is simultaneously running the company, and reviewing product designs at a detailed level," said Lhotka. "My friends talk about the 'BillG reviews,' where they had to justify their work directly to Bill. One friend had to do this just last week!"

"And yet Gates spent years running a major corporation. I suspect that at least a couple of my former employers would have been far more successful if their corporate leadership had even a fraction of the knowledge and involvement about their company's business as Gates demonstrated," he said.

Despite the popular conception of Gates as a marketing genius, many developers feel that Gates lack of marketing savvy has led to some of the biggest challenges for Microsoft, such as the lawsuits, the 'Evil' moniker, and the strife with Linux and Apple camps.

Said 'Rocky' Lhotka: "Gates' biggest failing was that he didn't realize the importance of politics and public opinion early enough."

"I laugh when I hear people suggest that Microsoft's success is due to their much-vaunted 'marketing machine,'" he continued. "Because I think they've done a singularly poor job at marketing and winning popular support. And that lack of popular support has undermined their ability to deal with governments in the political sphere. When a company has more wealth than many nations, it should expect to become a target of political opportunity, and I don't think Gates anticipated this sort of attack early enough, and Microsoft has suffered for it."

Some say Gates' tough tactics helped turn public support away from the company. Wildermuth explained, "The short-sighted hard-ball tactics that the company took with a number of companies ultimately hurt the company's image more than it helped the bottom line," said Shawn Widermuth. "When you're in the spotlight as much as Microsoft, you must understand the PR implication of such deals as much as the fiscal implications."

The Gates years are often looked back on as years of 'developer battles.' It was OS/2 versus Microsoft, Java versus Microsoft, and so on. "I wish that there wasn't such a schism between the Apple vs. Linux vs. Open Source vs. Microsoft camps," Benjamin Day noted. "Microsoft is the big player but somewhere along the way they started being perceived as 'Evil.'"

Day pointed to a recent example in Microsoft's bid to buy Yahoo. "There was push back and rancor inspired by Microsoft's pursuit of Yahoo. If the Linux and Open Source world didn't immediately think "Microsoft equals Evil" then Microsoft might have been able to acquire Yahoo."

At the recent Microsoft TechEd Developer 2008 event in Orlando, an attendee suggested that Gates had been "a great influence on the industry." Michael Sutherland, application developer for Colorado-based Sashco, noted that Gates is not without controversy -- that many people criticize parts of his legacy. "He's created a lot of wealth and jobs, and he deserves credit," said Sutherland, who thought some criticisms of Gates were not fully fair. "People like to pick on the top guy," he said. "Sometimes they are envious of the big guy."

At the end of day, Gates and Microsoft may have helped prove that geeks could be cool too. As Rockford Lhotka said, "Whatever someone's feelings toward the man, the reality is that he founded and created a company whose products have directly touched the lives of more people ... certainly more than any other computer product. Gates and Microsoft moved the computer from the corporate data center to the center of the home."

"For me personally, he is one of the luminary motivating figures that shows that the geeks really will inherit the earth. While the jocks and cool kids might rule high school, the geeks have the potential to become some of the richest and most powerful people on the planet," said Lhotka.

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