OPINION - In the early days of his rise to the top of the independent software business, Bill Gates appeared plain lucky. Then and subsequently, if we were to ask him, he'd probably say there isn't anything wrong with luck. And that of course is plain common sense.
The story went that IBM asked Visual Basic-provider Gates to direct them to a firm that could provide an operating system for their upcoming personal computer, and he dutifully sent them to Digital Research's Gary Kildall of CP/M fame. Digital Research and IBM failed to forge a pact. IBM returned to Gates, asked again, and he said maybe he could come up with an operating system. Arguably, MS-DOS thus arose.
Gates parlayed the deal into a series of successes and a notable fortune. For people like me, who basically lived in a hardware world, he seemed just lucky. But an army of admirers was growing around him. He always compared the new vision of personal computing to the original (IBM) vision of computing as a central company resource to be administered by a special class. It was this vision that led him to leave Harvard.
When he rolled out Visual Basic at Comdex in Atlanta just about everybody stood up and cheered. Well, some of the reporters remained seated, anyway. The people admired him but it was becoming clear by then that Gates was somewhat driven by a sense that luck had got him going, and it could falter.
He was also guided by a desire to be the Anti-IBM. He pursued low-price/high-volume with a vengeance. I will give you an example.
FrontPage is a Microsoft product now somewhat derided. During its time, it added more and more Microsoft extensions that were not compatible with the basic nature of the Web. That was pure Microsoft. But that happened over time. FrontPage started its life as Vermeer FrontPage, a $600 product. When Microsoft bought Vermeer and brought out Microsoft FrontPage, it was a $100 product. Overnight, it enabled a bigger group of people to build Web pages - without raising the company accountant's eyebrows on an expense report. That was pure Gates. It helped me get in the Web business, anyway.
At that point I gained a grudging admiration for Bill Gates. In time I came to admire him more. Once at a press conference he was asked a contrived question about how he would react in some future hypothetical instance, in effect, "What is the looming future software challenge that will bring you down?"
Gates said: "If you told me what town I'd die in, I'd never go there." Spoken not so much like a computer science grad, or a software geek, but like someone with common sense.
Yes, Gates was lucky. But he also had an uncommon amount of common sense. This can be seen in his latest move. He is leaving the trenches of the tech wars to address global humanitarian issues full time. That calls for admiration, and not the grudging kind.