A snapshot in history of Gates and Microsoft, 1992

Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire is a 1992 autobiography of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. It’s old. But it’s a compelling snapshot of what the industry thought of Gates and Microsoft before Windows 95, before Microsoft Office, and before Internet Explorer. Indeed, it gives an early glimpse into the struggle to bring Windows to market, some of the bad bets Microsoft cast on its early productivity software, and just how close Microsoft came to betting the company on the success of the Apple Macintosh.

If Microsoft’s history were written today, many of these stories would probably be forgotten.

Much of Microsoft’s history had yet to be written when this book came out. It speaks of companies like Lotus, Word Perfect, Novell, and Ashton-Tate as market leaders and difficult competition for Microsoft. It even goes so far as to say Microsoft had no product to compete with Ashton-Tate. It speaks of May 22, 1990–the day Windows 3.0 was released–being perhaps the seminal date in Microsoft’s history.

But if you understand the Microsoft of 1992, the Microsoft of the later years makes perfect sense. Windows 1.0 and 2.0 were late and didn’t deliver everything Microsoft said they would. Just like every version of Windows after version 3.1, with the possible exception of Windows XP and Windows ME, which were late, and didn’t deliver everything the early reports said they would. Microsoft and Apple don’t like each other today, and all of the reasons for that existed long before even 1992.

But I think one other thing makes this book relevant today, 19 years after it was written. Some people in the book argued that Microsoft’s advantage in the marketplace wasn’t so much its anticompetitive behavior, but rather, Bill Gates himself. The book didn’t formally explore this idea any; it mostly just let those comments stand as a recurring theme. And I think that’s fair. In 1992, you couldn’t really test that theory.

But looking back, there certainly may be something to that idea. In the past decade, Microsoft lost Gates, and it started behaving at least slightly less anticompetitively. Perhaps the latter was due to the attention it got from the DoJ in the late 1990s, or perhaps it’s because of Gates’ departure, or maybe a little of both.

Microsoft is closely associated with Intel, but they took different succession strategies. When Bill Gates stepped aside, his old friend Steve Ballmer took over. Meanwhile, Intel has had five CEOs in its only slightly longer history. And while Intel’s five CEOs aren’t interchangeable, Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, Andy Grove, Craig Barrett and Paul Otellini are more alike than Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. Today some people are arguing that Ballmer needs to be replaced with someone who, like Gates, understands software development. It’s an interesting idea.

That theme wasn’t the main crux of the book when it was written, but I think that theme is what keeps this 19-year-old book relevant today.

Beyond that, the stories you expect to be there are there: How Bill Gates and Paul Allen, as young adults, wrote a BASIC interpreter for the Intel 8080 microprocessor using a DEC PDP-10; how Microsoft got the deal to supply operating systems to IBM over the incumbent Digital Research; how Lotus 1-2-3 failed to run under DOS 2.0; and numerous others.

The picture isn’t always flattering. The book spends considerable time talking about how Gates micromanaged early versions of Windows to death, causing Windows 1.0 to be delayed more than two years before it finally appeared. Interestingly, Microsoft sold about 3 million copies of Windows before 1990, but few people who bought Windows 1.0 and 2.0 actually used it.

Today, people point to Microsoft’s success being in part due to its competitors not developing for Windows. One detail lost in that argument was that other companies, notably Lotus, wanted to develop for Windows, but after they spent 1983 and 1984 developing a spreadsheet for a product that Microsoft kept changing and didn’t manage to ship until November 1985, it’s hard to blame them for losing enthusiasm. Word Perfect, for its part, was confused because Microsoft kept flip-flopping between whether the platform of the future was going to be Windows or OS/2. So they developed for OS/2 while Microsoft developed Word for Windows. And the book doesn’t go into this, but by the time Word Perfect had a viable Windows version, Word had a foothold. Microsoft may not have been deliberately anti-competitive–they seemed to be confused themselves whether it would be Windows or OS/2 that ultimately replaced MS-DOS–but the results of the constant flip-flopping certainly worked to Microsoft’s benefit.

The book also talks about some of Gates’ own traits. The authors tracked down numerous people–classmates, teachers, former girlfriends, employees and competitors–who were able to give insight into the man himself. Again, the picture isn’t always flattering, but the authors did attempt to be balanced, talking to admirers and detractors. Actually, many of the people were both, admiring some things about Gates but finding other things about him distasteful. Many described Gates as extremely intelligent and animated, entertaining and charming in person but also immature. A fairly common theme was people wishing he’d get married and have a couple of kids because that would force his inner 9-year-old to grow up. (Gates married in 1994, two years after this book was published.)

There are a number of things that, despite being recorded in this book, seem to be fairly little-known. For example, page 122 busts the Microsoft myth that Gates invented the enduring FAT file system while writing code on yellow legal tablets in a motel room. It was Marc McDonald who did it.

Page 77 tells the story of Monte Davidoff, the author of the floating point routines in the original Altair BASIC. Up until this book, Davidoff was the forgotten third author of the program that launched the company. And speaking of BASIC, the story on page 83 paints a picture of Allen uprooting and moving to Albuquerque to work with Ed Roberts and MITS to spend months refining BASIC to make it suitable to ship while Gates went back to Harvard and played poker. Paul Allen’s recent book was seen as adversarial, but perhaps Allen actually understates his contributions to that project. On page 99, former MITS executive Ed Curry puts it very bluntly: “I don’t want this to come out that I said Bill Gates didn’t write BASIC… But in terms of who sat down and did the work for BASIC as we know it today, it’s got to be Paul who did the lion’s share.”

Page 94 demolishes another Gates myth. It’s well known that Gates wrote a program to generate class schedules while he was in high school, and that the school used it. The story goes that Gates wrote the program to put himself in a class where all the other students were girls. But it was actually Gates’ protege, Chris Larson, who took over the program after Gates graduated, who did that.

The exact circumstances around the infamous mug shot showing a very young-looking Gates remain a mystery, but page 130 tells a story of when Gates was pulled over for speeding in his Porsche with Allen in the passenger seat. The two tried to confuse who was actually driving, but Gates, as the registered owner, was arrested. He posted $1,000 bail immediately, and police followed him around for days, thinking someone that young with a Porsche and carrying that much money in cash had to be a drug dealer.

The same year the mug shot was taken, Microsoft hired Miriam Lubow. Gates had been away on business when Lubow was hired. A few days after she started, she raced into her boss’ office and told her that some kid had zipped past her desk into Gates’ office and was playing with his computer terminal. Her boss checked on the situation, and as you’ve probably guessed, the “kid” was Bill Gates himself.

The book spends a couple hundred pages talking about the complicated relationship between IBM and Microsoft, a story that wasn’t completely over in 1992 when the book was released. But my favorite story happens on page 192. Because of IBM’s dress code, when Gates knew IBM was sending visitors, Gates and the other employees would try to wear suits. One morning, Gates showed up for work, surprisingly, wearing a suit. Later that morning, three briefcase-toting strangers in jeans, tennis shoes and casual shirts showed up for a meeting with Gates. They were from IBM. Gates took one look at the IBM men, the IBM men took one look at Gates, and they all burst out laughing.

This book was a bestseller in the early 1990s, and 19 years later, it’s still a compelling book.

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2 thoughts on “A snapshot in history of Gates and Microsoft, 1992

  • July 5, 2011 at 10:55 pm

    Interesting take on WordPerfect – I saw a pretty good working version at a show just before Novell got in the picture, then it was nearly a year before they got it out the door. I’ve held Novell responsible ever since, and still much prefer WP to Word.

  • July 7, 2011 at 7:11 am

    It was observations like that that impressed me, as WP was still the market leader when this book was published and Windows was just starting to gain acceptance.

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