I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
--Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias
OPINION - I sincerely hope that Bill Gates' legacy is yet to be created, because what passes for common wisdom about his contributions to the computer industry will either fade from memory or be relegated to the arcana of business scholarship.
Readers may raise Microsoft as an objection to my argument. My trite reply is: Thomas Watson and Google. The former built a computing colossus but has faded from everyday IT awareness faster than most would have predicted. The latter is the current darling, a young star yet to experience the ravages of success and time.
People talk about the "genius" of Bill Gates. I find this an overly fawning accolade when I compare him to Einstein, Feynman, Hawking and their (rare) ilk. There is no "Gates algorithm" left for computer scientists to ponder. Yet, he was an unequivocal business success. Is there a different dimension of perception or behavior that warrants the genius label when applied to his accomplishments in the industry?
Maybe. Unlike Einstein's quest for a theory of general relativity, Gates had plenty of competitors racing to make small computers pervasive. But he came from a socio-economic background that enabled him to aggressively follow his dream. He had family connections that put him in contact with the highest levels at IBM at the time when the IBM PC was being developed. He had the great sense to say "yes" when IBM asked if his company had an operating system for their fledging PC. He was, shall we say, shrewd, in his acquisition of MS-DOS. He was equally shrewd in his proposal to IBM that allowed Microsoft to resell DOS to IBM's competitors. And he was triply shrewd when he convinced PC manufacturers to pay for DOS regardless of its residence on their PC products. The fact that the U.S. Justice Department was asleep at the switch during this period made this last move ultimately effective for Microsoft's development. If this be the definition of business genius, then Bill qualifies in spades.
During the Justice Department's actions against Microsoft, the company had the opportunity to remake itself into smaller, more agile pieces. It did not. Perhaps Bill's biggest business failing was not seeing why this might be a good thing. Microsoft is struggling today, in part, because of its bulk. Furthermore, the bloom is off Microsoft's rose, so the public market has a higher tendency to punish the company for its perceived missteps. This punishment cannot be meted out to the division or product line that is truly responsible, so value is destroyed across the entire enterprise.
IBM is hailed as a company that recovered from the brink of death, a place where many feel Microsoft, at current course and speed, could be headed. IBM's recovery only happened after a parade of less-than-capable CEOs drove its Board to bring on the highly-capable Lou Gerstner. Perhaps Microsoft has not had enough CEOs to develop a corporate sense of what defines inadequacy at the top. Therefore, I suggest another candidate for Bill's biggest failing is his long-standing and apparently continued support for Microsoft's current CEO.
Where my respect for Bill Gates is unbounded is in his decision to use almost his entire fortune for the common good. Unlike so many Silicon Valley "successes" who seem to require personal fulfillment by recreating Japanese palaces or building ever-larger sailboats, Bill's actions in the future could make a real difference in the lives of millions of people and the planet we all share. That legacy might endure.
Biography: Lou Mazzucchelli is a venture partner with Ridgewood Capital. His software experience includes work as a teacher and consultant with Yourdin, Inc. In 1982 he founded Cadre Technologies, where he stayed for 12 years before becoming a Wall Street analyst, investment banker and venture capitalist focusing on I.T.