Sir Bill and Sir Tim: A Tale of Two Knights


There's something strange going on. As Bill Gates steps down from active involvement in the day-to-day running of Microsoft, there's a natural tendency to speak about the “end of an era”. That's certainly true enough, but people are going beyond this factual statement to indulge in some serious revisionism. For example, here's Wired:

As Gates prepares to retire from full-time work at Microsoft July 1, after 33 years of doing everything from writing code to defending his company's business practices in court, many people are saying 'good riddance' to the man most techies loved to hate. What the critics won't acknowledge is that it was Gates' most obnoxious qualities that made it possible for the tech industry to grow as large as it has.

One reason?

"A lot of people see Microsoft as the enemy of openness and innovation, but it's worth remembering that it was the open architecture of the Microsoft-based PC that spurred massive creativity in both hardware and software and sped the adoption of computers both at home and at work," Carr said.

The open architecture of the PC was entirely down to IBM, and was a result of the fact that the IBM PC's design was knocked up very quickly by a rogue group outside the company's mainstream. This meant that it was put together from pre-existing elements, rather than designed by IBM from the bottom up. In fact, the launch of the ill-fated PS/2 – a closed system – showed what IBM would have done if it had had more time.

So Microsoft deserves precisely zero credit for the open hardware architecture. But the Wired article also makes claims on the software side, where it opines that Microsoft's monopoly:

created a stable environment where entrepreneurs could develop new companies and new products around a common platform.

Without that standard, the computer industry in the 1990s would have resembled the web today: diverse, vibrant and flowering with abundant innovation, but also frequently broken because of the inability of disparate products to make the most basic connections with one another.

At first sight, this is more plausible – despite the misleading statement that the Web is“frequently broken”, since it is mostly broken because Microsoft refuses to implement open standards properly. But it is certainly true that a single platform leads to less fragmentation of the market. However, that is less about the joys of monopolies and more about the power of the network effect: once a platform becomes widely adopted, there is a natural tendency for it to get stronger still, as new entrants to the computer ecosystem support it preferentially.

But as we've seen with the Internet and the Web, you don't need a monopoly for those network effects to kick in. TCP/IP swept rival network protocols away because it was better, not least because it was open. HTTP/HTML was never imposed by ruthless business practices, as MS-DOS and Windows were, and yet it created probably the richest computing platform yet seen.

In the same way, if Bill Gates had finished his studies at Harvard and decided to become a lawyer like his father, the world would not find itself today in the dark ages technologically. Another operating system like DR-DOS could easily have taken the place of MS-DOS, and maybe Apple's Macintosh would have become the dominant GUI instead of Windows.

In a better world, maybe, Richard Stallman would not have got sidetracked trying to produce a microkernel for his free operating system – a decision that held it back for years, and led in part to the creation of Linux – and GNU could then have become the operating system equivalent of the Internet: a completely open platform for everyone to build on.

That's now happening, as GNU/Linux is starting to become a serious option in more and more computer sectors – totally dominant in supercomputing, for example, probably the equal of Windows on the server-side, still lagging on the desktop, and poised to become the main operating system for embedded systems.

But during the twenty years it has taken open source to establish itself, Microsoft has done two things: it has sucked almost unimaginable quantities of money from the world's economy – notably from developing economies that can ill afford it – and it has left behind it a trail of bad technology that is still actively costing business and end-users yet more money.

One manifestation of the latter is malware, which feeds almost entirely off deficiencies in the Windows ecosystem and the monoculture that it Microsoft has built up around it. The indirect annual cost of this has been estimated at billions of dollars. Harder to quantify is the effect of countless Blue Screens of Death, with the concomitant loss of data and the time wasted in dealing with Microsoft's poor coding – to say nothing of raised blood pressure.

To be sure, Microsoft's products have brought real benefits in terms of productivity, and in terms of letting people do what they couldn't before. But the mistake being made in this Stalinist re-writing of history is to attribute those benefits uniquely to Microsoft and Bill Gates, as if they and they alone could have provided them. This is arrant nonsense. All of them would have been provided by alternative operating systems from other companies. All of them could have come from a totally free, open platform, for example based on GNU.

So by all means celebrate Bill Gate's transition to philanthropy, but remember where that money came from, and how it was gained. And let us remember, too, someone else who was knighted for his services to computing, but who won't be giving away tens of billions of pounds to the world's needy over the next few decades, because he never extracted them from the system in the first place. Unlike Sir William Gates III, Sir Tim Berners-Lee decided to make his platform completely open and completely free, not to devote every breath first to creating and then to shoring up a global monopoly based around it.

I venture to suggest Berners-Lee is rather more worthy of the kind of encomiums that are being penned in these days, and that the world would be a better place if we all tried to emulate his generosity and humility rather than Bill Gates's more spectacular, more entertaining, but ultimately more selfish, approach.

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