It may have been the most momentous purchase of a magazine in the history of the Out of Town News stand in Harvard Square. Paul Allen, a college dropout from Seattle, wandered into the cluttered kiosk one snowy day in December 1974 and saw that the new issue of Popular Electronics featured a home computer for hobbyists, called the Altair, that was just coming on the market. He was both exhilarated and dismayed. Although thrilled that the era of the "personal" computer seemed to have arrived, he was afraid that he was going to miss the party. Slapping down 75 cents, he grabbed the issue and trotted through the slush to the Currier House room of Bill Gates, a Harvard sophomore and fellow computer fanatic from Lakeside High School in Seattle, who had convinced Allen to drop out of college and move to Cambridge. "Hey, this thing is happening without us," Allen declared. Gates began to rock back and forth, as he often did during moments of intensity. When he finished the article, he realized that Allen was right. For the next eight weeks, the two of them embarked on a frenzy of code writing that would change the nature of the computer business.
What Gates and Allen set out to do, during the Christmas break of 1974 and the subsequent January reading period when Gates was supposed to be studying for exams, was to create the software for personal computers. "When Paul showed me that magazine, there was no such thing as a software industry," Gates recalled. "We had the insight that you could create one. And we did." Years later, reflecting on his innovations, he said, "That was the most important idea that I ever had."
And here perhaps is the worst idea Gates ever had:
Yesterday, I was part of a small group of journalists and bloggers that got to meet with Bill Gates for a little more than an hour. Gates was there to discuss the publication of his annual letter for 2013, which is a report of how things are going at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Here are a few of my observations about the letter, the conversation, and Gates himself.
- First, the letter. It's very optimistic in tone and not without reason. Hearing bad news about the third-world is de rigueur, but Gates is obviously very proud of the progress being made in various places around the world. From the letter:
As 2015 approaches, the world is taking a hard look at how it is doing on the goals. Although we won't achieve them all, we've made amazing progress, and the goals have become a report card for how the world is performing against major problems affecting the poor. The MDG target of reducing extreme poverty by half has been reached ahead of the deadline, as has the goal of halving the proportion of people who lack access to safe drinking water. Living conditions for more than 200 million slum dwellers have also improved -- double the target. Some goals, however, were set at such an ambitious level that they will be missed. For instance, while we have reduced the number of mothers who die during childbirth by almost 50 percent -- which is incredible -- we will, however, fall short of the goal of a 75 percent reduction.
We're also not on track to meet one of the most critical goals -- reducing the number of children who die under the age of five by two-thirds. We've made substantial progress. The number of children who die has declined from nearly 12 million in 1990 to 6.9 million in 2011. While that means 14,000 fewer children around the world are dying every day than in 1990, we won't reach the two-thirds target by 2015.
Still, many individual countries are on track to achieve this target. One of them is Ethiopia, which used the MDGs to drive an overhaul of its primary health care system that has led to a dramatic decline in childhood deaths.
If you read the whole thing, you'll likely be surprised, as I was, at how much has been accomplished over the past 10-15 years.
- I asked him if he saw some trends that were not headed in a good direction and he replied that there weren't many. Two that he mentioned were the quality of governance in some areas of the world and the average income of families that kids are born into is falling (basically because the poor are having kids faster than everyone else). Gates indicated the governance issue is difficult to solve with money alone and that the second problem is being addressed through the Foundation's general efforts.
- Gates stated, with no small amount of dissatisfaction, that both education and energy are drastically underinvested in R&D.
- Over and over, in the letter and during the roundtable, Gates talked about the importance of measurement and results. I got the sense that before the Gates Foundation came along, money was pumped into charitable foundations and donors didn't have much sense what result their giving had, beyond that it had "done good". Gates is obviously running his foundation like a business, where instead of profits or number of Windows installs, the metrics are things like lives saved or children vaccinated.
- In person, Gates is very much like you'd expect: intense, passionate, and super smart. He spoke without notes and as an expert in a wide-ranging number of topics. He pulled so many different kinds of statistics off the top of his head that you'd be tempted to think he's making them up, but I don't think so.
- Gates reminds me a bit of NYC Mayor Bloomberg: he's likely fiscally conservative, socially liberal, but pragmatic above all.
He is smart enough, and health-savvy enough, not to waste time with handshakes at the beginning of meetings. People as productive as Gates should not be required to shake hands, and the same can be said for people less productive than Gates.
This Best of Kottke post was easy, because I wanted to write something about Steve Jobs over the years anyways. The kickoff is Jason's link to a 1995 interview with Jobs for Smithsonian Magazine. It's mostly reflective, talking about his childhood, his history with Apple and early history with NEXT and Pixar. Toy Story hadn't come out yet, and it's fascinating to read what could be his bluster about what the movie and company were going to do, which of course turned out to be totally true. He's also absolutely thrilled with what NEXT was doing with graphical user interface and networked computers. Windows 95 came out four months later.
It's a sharp contrast with his interview the next year for Wired, which is mostly about the future of computing. He's devastated and angry about Windows, but incredibly enthusiastic about the open web.
The desktop computer industry is dead. Innovation has virtually ceased. Microsoft dominates with very little innovation. That's over. Apple lost. The desktop market has entered the dark ages, and it's going to be in the dark ages for the next 10 years, or certainly for the rest of this decade.
It's like when IBM drove a lot of innovation out of the computer industry before the microprocessor came along. Eventually, Microsoft will crumble because of complacency, and maybe some new things will grow. But until that happens, until there's some fundamental technology shift, it's just over.
The most exciting things happening today are objects and the Web. The Web is exciting for two reasons. One, it's ubiquitous. There will be Web dial tone everywhere. And anything that's ubiquitous gets interesting. Two, I don't think Microsoft will figure out a way to own it. There's going to be a lot more innovation, and that will create a place where there isn't this dark cloud of dominance.
He also has this crystal clear vision about how the web was going to move beyond simple publishing and would be used to do commerce and create marketplaces for physical and virtual goods -- a vision, which, again, turned out to be exactly right.
Two common threads in both interviews: he hates teachers' unions, and doesn't think technology can do anything for education. You generally see a much more libertarian, pessimistic Jobs in both of these interviews than you do today. He talks about death a lot, even though he's still young and healthy.
Finally, I'll link to what's still one of my favorite looks at the future of consumer technology, Jobs and Bill Gates's 2007 joint interview at D5 with Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. (Prologue - Full Video - Transcript) It's long to watch, but so worth it. They joke and reminisce with each other, tell stories about the early days of the computer industry, and share ideas about where things are going. (Bill Gates's first line: "First, I just want to say: I am not Fake Steve Jobs.")
The iPhone (announced but not released) is hot as hell, but Apple is still a much smaller company than Microsoft. Vista's just been released and is stumbling out of the gate. Gates, unlike Jobs, is incredibly invested in trying to do something in tech to help education, and Jobs (whose Apple now has a huge education market) is mostly silent.
It's also painfully obvious in retrospect that Jobs is talking about the expansion of the iOS into the iPod Touch, iPad (and maybe beyond) while Gates is talking about the experiments in input recognition that played into Windows 7 and the new XBox Kinect. Neither of them have any real idea what to do with TVs, but Gates actually seems to be more visionary, in part because he can afford to be less coy. It's great. I've probably rewatched it four times, and you've never seen it, and care about this stuff at all, you should catch it.
Over at Worldchanging, Alex Steffen calls Bill Gates' talk about climate change the most important speech ever given at TED. Gates said that the number one priority for him and the Gates Foundation (the world's largest philanthropic organization) is to combat human-driven climate change.
He reckons that because population is going to continue to grow for at least four decades, because billions of poor people want more equitable prosperity, and because (as he sees it) improvements in energy efficiency are limited, we have to focus on the last element of the equation, the carbon intensity of energy. Simply, we need climate-neutral energy. We need to use nothing but climate-neutral energy.
A short remembrance of what it was like to work for Bill Gates at Microsoft in the early 90s. "Even in conversation, btw, people at Microsoft were known by their email names. I didn't report directly to billg; but, during much of the time I was there, I worked for mikemap (Mike Maples), who reported to billg, had responsibility for all the products, and was part of the boop. Boop stood for billg plus the office of the president (real presidents didn't last very long there). The oop consisted of steveb (Steve Ballmer) and mikemap. Major decisions were sometimes made by the boop." Boop. Boop!
Dilbert creator Scott Adams wants Bill Gates for President, and I can't say I disagree. "For my president I want a mixture of Mother Teresa, Carl Sagan, Warren Buffet, and Darth Vader. Bill has all of their good stuff. His foundation will save more lives than Mother Teresa ever did. He's got the Carl Sagan intelligence and rational mind. He's a hugely successful businessman. And I have every reason to believe he can choke people just by concentrating in their general direction."
Shareholder activists said Google's charitable commitment raises questions about whether this is an appropriate use of company cash or whether company founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page ought to make donations to their favorite causes personally. The foundation of Bill Gates, the founder and chairman of Microsoft Corp. and the nation's richest person according to Forbes, gave away more than a billion dollars last year to fight poverty, hunger and disease around the world. But Gates donates through a personal foundation, rather than through Microsoft itself.
"The board of directors should make it clear to the company's founders what should be personal and what should be corporate," said Patrick S. McGurn, special counsel to Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. "Google is spending shareholders' money, and it raises questions if there is not a valid corporate purpose."
Shareholder activists? You've got to be kidding me. You'd think that stock shareholders are a bunch of babies that need their noses wiped and hands held to go potty or something. If you don't want to support Google's philanthropic efforts and think that they're throwing your money away by doing so, there's an easy way to opt out: DON'T BUY GOOGLE STOCK. It's a free country and open market...vote with your money on what you think is a "valid corporate purpose". There are thousands of other companies to invest in that are doing other things, many of which operate exactly the same...nice and safe and by the book. The information on what these companies are doing with their shareholders' money is freely available...get informed about what you're buying. Given their P/E ratio, unique corporate approach, and incredible rate of growth, Google might just be the riskiest large-cap stock opportunity out there, but the potential upside (as well as the downside) is a lot greater than all of those companies playing it safe. As long as it's stated (and I believe Google certainly has made their views very clear), risk isn't something from which shareholders should be warned away.
Old Computer Bowl programs on archive.org. Computer Bowl was a technology trivia program from the late 80s/early 90s that featured Bill Joy, Bill Gates, Mitch Kapor, Andy Herzfeld, and Esther Dyson as contestants.