One of the things I don't think I fully realized until I started blogging is how often a blog post dies on the vine. By that I mean you start to write it and then either can't make it work, don't get around to posting it because another more compelling topic arises or any of a hundred other reasons.
This post was destined for that fate but I really felt bad for having not taken a moment to acknowledge the retirement of Bill Gates. A man who, though his detractors might not want to admit it, is almost certainly responsible for the age we live in today. So the post got a reprieve (which also handily gives me time to catch up after my vacation)
That said, Bill Gates is/was a true visionary.
I think the passing of time tends to diminish the greatness of visionaries as their visions become common knowledge. If someone were to come up to you today and say that its software and not hardware that's important in the digital revolution you'd think they were stating the obvious. Which is why it becomes hard to grasp how much of a revolutionary Gates was to realize that before everyone else did.
But he did and in doing so he gave birth to an entire industry.
If that wasn't enough he actually managed to ride that initial vision to even greater success. Try to find any other area of business where one company has dominated not one, not two, but three successive generations of innovation. The sheer fact that there's a rivalry between "The Valley" and Microsoft attests to just how influential the company is. Where else can you find one company pitted against an entire industry? Just to survive under such a circumstance is impressive but to come out on top more often than not is nothing short of phenomenal.
That said, and with all due respect to Gates' contributions to technology, I think his greatest contribution was as a business man.
Ideas such as hedging every bet and creating a culture of competition were nothing short of bizarre in the buttoned down world of an IBM dominated IT industry. I doubt all those suit and tie IBM drones could imagine a corporate culture in which you checked your morning e-mail to find a message from the CEO cussing you out for being an idiot but that's exactly what early Microsoft was. More importantly, it was a culture in which an employee could yell back and, if they were right, actually come out on top.
To really appreciate the beauty of these innovations you have to look at all the things Gates missed on the technology side. He backed OS/2 over Windows, he focused on the Mac instead of the PC, he even handed the original IBM OS contract over to another company because he didn't initially see the advantage of controlling the PC Operating System. But in each case his business acumen created an environment where he could still succeed. He kept Windows going even as he proclaimed OS/2 the way of the future, he developed DOS versions of Microsoft Office even though he thought the Mac was the way of the future and he quickly found an OS to sell to IBM once Gary Kildall dropped the ball back in his lap.
There's no doubt he could go overboard even coming into conflict with the world's governments at various times. But the arrogance that caused that trouble was only possible because of how utterly dominant Gates and Microsoft had become from a business perspective.
In closing I have to give Mr. Gates one more piece of praise. Of all the innovations Microsoft has created, all the successes they've had, there's one thing that I'll always be grateful for on a personal level and that is the fact that Microsoft was the first company to appreciate the value of developers. Mock Steve Ballmer if you must but the fact that Microsoft is a company whose chief executive is willing to look foolish to demonstrate the importance of developers shows just how dedicated they are to the community. Even now initiatives like MSDN put the offerings of other companies to shame and allow developers unprecedented access to literally every product Microsoft offers. No one before or since has done the same and that is a testament to Microsoft's continued devotion to developers.
So as Gates rides off into the sunset I wish him all the best. In an industry full of blowhards claiming to have invented everything short of the kitchen sink Gates is a true titan. There are very few men who can claim to have changed the course of the known world but I truly believe the world we know would be far different and far worse had Bill Gates not been a part of it.