While I am personally a big fan of Steve Jobs (though oddly, I’m no Apple fanboy – I don’t even own an iPhone anymore, having traded it for an Android phone), there is a lot to be said for the lessons we can learn from Bill Gates, the cofounder of Microsoft. Yes, Bill Gates – the guy who brought us the operating system that most of us have a love hate relationship with, Microsoft Windows.
A Bit about Bill
Bill Gates was a college dropout. He is also an incredibly smart guy who built a business from nothing into one of the largest companies in the world and who today spends his billions of dollars to try to do some good in the world. He created Microsoft together with Paul Allen back in the 1970s (a little before the time when Steve Wozniack and Steve Jobs got together).
Microsoft was already a somewhat successful if small shop by the time they struck gold and offered us our first truly valuable lesson. They had a couple of dozen employees and a mildly successful business selling their BASIC programming language interpreter for early computers. Interestingly, they also happened to create a BASIC interpreter for the Apple II.
1. Take Advantage When Opportunity Knocks
Life with computers might be vastly, vastly different had Bill Gates not been the smart cookie that he was back in the early 1980s. By a stroke of luck, IBM, which was a behemoth at the time and which was developing its own operating system had had a falling out with Digital Research Inc. (a company which has long since disappeared into the mists of time).
Microsoft, then known only for their BASIC software was tasked by IBM with coming up with a basic operating system for the as yet not release IBM PC. In a stroke of pure genius, Bill Gates made a deal with IBM, which was desperate because they needed to get their product to market soon, whereby Microsoft would be allowed to develop their own clone of the operating system.
IBM later released PC-DOS which was created by Microsoft and Microsoft simultaneously released MS-DOS, which was their legally authorized clone. This simple bit of luck and gumption by Bill Gates meant that Microsoft went from being a tiny company to the supersize powerhouse it is today.
MS-DOS ended up ruling the roost because Microsoft sold it to clone makers who cloned the IBM PC and offered a similar product for cheaper prices. Of course Bill Gates also got lucky because IBM had made the mistake of using stock parts for their new PC instead of sticking with proprietary parts.
Had they created their own proprietary parts, Bill Gates would have been holding a worthless license because nobody would have been able to clone the IBM PC and nobody would have had much use for MS-DOS. IBM did try to correct their mistake when they created the PS/2, but by then the clone market was established and the PS/2 was only a minor success.
So, first lesson from Bill Gates: take advantage when opportunity comes knocking (and think ahead as well). He had the vision to see what DOS could become and he went for it.
2. Know When to Jump Ship
Another lesson drawn from the early days of the PC and from Bill Gates is knowing when to abandon a sinking ship. Microsoft and IBM continued to work together for a number of years to refine the PC-DOS/MS-DOS operating system.
At the same time, they also worked together on a competitor to the Macintosh. No, it wasn’t Microsoft Windows. That was a separate coding development that Bill Gates initiated on his own. By this time, IBM had learned from their mistakes and they didn’t allow Microsoft to create an exact clone of their new operating system. Instead, the system was OS/2 (just like the PS/2).
OS/2 looked a lot like Windows in the early days and may have even shared some underlying code, but the two systems were incompatible from the start. IBM intended it to run on their new PS/2 system and to make it into a proprietary system much like Macintosh (from Apple) of the time.
Bill Gates once again was able to see the future for what it was and ultimately decided to abandon OS/2 and his partnership with IBM because he could see that it was going nowhere fast. He decided instead to focus on developing both MS-DOS and the new Windows operating system, promising that version 3.0 was going to change everything. It did.
Windows 3.0 became the world’s dominant operating system and OS/2 faded into oblivion after another few years (though a handful of ATMs still use that operating system). Lesson number 2 from Bill Gates – know when to jump ship. He could see that his partnership with IBM was holding down his company and so he decided to jump ship and Windows was born.
3. Be First to Market
There’s another early bit of computer history which many people may not be familiar with and it’s all about a few programs called Lotus 123, WordStar and WordPerfect. Lotus was the first commercially popular spreadsheet program and WordStar and WordPerfect competed in the early days of PCs for the title of dominant word processor.
All three of those programs were DOS based programs though and they were pretty slow to jump onto the Windows bandwagon. They had been making a fortune from selling their products to people who hated Windows (I admit to having hated Windows back then as well by the way) and they felt that there was no need to work on developing a Windows specific version of their software.
Bill Gates thought differently and he pushed early on for the development of Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel. The two software programs which we know today were early to the market in the new Windows operating system and by the time the old dinosaurs caught up and built Windows native versions of their own, it was too late. The world had moved on.
So, wherever possible, you want to be first to market with your idea. And yes, that can also mean first to market on a new platform which is poised to take off. Of course, you could also make a bad investment as anyone who spent a lot of money developing for the failed HP WebOS, but that’s a risk that you need to take if you want to dominate a market.
4. If You Can’t Be First, Overpower Everyone Else
The next lesson that Bill Gates has taught us is that if you can’t be first, you should at least overpower the competition to the point where you crush them into dust. There are two examples of this, one better known than the other.
The first and lesser known example is the PC-GEOS operating system from GeoWorks Ensemble. This system came out almost a year before Windows 3.0 and it actually ran very well on older PCs. It also included its own version of TrueType, which allowed it to offer up extremely high quality printing even from cheap printers (back then we had dot matrix printers).
However, GEOS never really went anywhere because the company marketing it was quite small and slow to release an SDK (software development kit). Bill Gates quickly crushed them to dust with the massive marketing blitz he did for Windows 3.0 and today pretty much nobody has even heard of GEOS.
A much more famous case is that of Netscape Navigator. This was the premier web browser at the time when the World Wide Web first started to become popular and Bill Gates actually flubbed this one. He thought the Internet and the WWW was just a fad which would fade away soon enough. When it didn’t however, he did the same thing that he did with PC-GEOS only on a much grander scale.
Gates realized that the Internet was here to stay and so he poured millions of dollars into creating Internet Explorer, which he actually arranged to have integrated into his Windows operating system starting with Windows 98 (though it was available as an add on as of Windows 95).
An aggressive marketing campaign and lots of money spent on R&D to make IE better than Netscape meant that Netscape lost ground and was crushed into dust. Today, Netscape is the neglected stepchild of another has been in the world of the Internet – AOL (which by the way started life on the PC by using the PC-GEOS system, though they moved to Windows when it became popular).
5. Know When to Throw in the Towel
I used to own several Microsoft products which are no longer around. One of them was Microsoft Money. This was Bill Gates’ answer to Intuit’s Quicken software, which he tried but failed to purchase. Another product I used to own was Microsoft Pascal. That was a Pascal (Pascal is a kind of programming language which I learned in college) interpreter for DOS.
Both of these programs have been retired because Bill Gates also understood that not everything works. Eventually, you need to know when to throw in the towel and try a different business. He didn’t rush to drop these things and indeed Money was actually sunseted after Gates left the company. However, ultimately, it was Gate’s vision which saw that some things just didn’t work and needed to be ended.
6. Be a Standard
This one is pretty obvious, but it’s still useful to remember. Windows, Word, Excel, PowerPoint – these are all household words because they have become standardized. If you can, try to create products which will become the standards by which all others are measured.
This means that you constantly innovate, constantly work to stay ahead of the game and constantly offer the best perceived value in your particular niche. When you can do that, others will chase you rather than you chasing after others.
And if you ever need proof of that, just remember that pretty much every word processor on the planet offers to save documents in Word format and pretty much every spreadsheet does Excel format. Bottom line – if you can become the standard, you’ll have it made. Though you still need to keep on your toes so that you stay the standard.
7. Know Where You Can Do the Most Good
Bill Gates was the chairman and cofounder of Microsoft Corporation for a great many years. He had vision and like Steve Jobs, was considered by many to be irreplaceable. People believed that Microsoft without Bill Gates would quickly founder and die. However, Gates had his own ideas about what he wanted to do in life and it didn’t include endlessly sitting around in Redmond, Washington.
He decided to follow his passion and go where he could do the most good. Gates left Steven Balmer in charge of his company, married his girlfriend Meilnda and proceeded to spend his fortune. Like another of my childhood heroes, Andrew Carnegie, Gates believes that money is no good unless you spread it around quite a little bit.
Today, Gates is no longer known for being a shrewd business man. Instead, Gates is today known for being one of the world’s greatest philanthropists with a special interest in education. He has decided that he can do the most good in this new role of his and indeed, he has helped to transform education in many ways. He has used his knowledge from the business world to create various initiatives and see what worked to make education better.
Bill Gates is one remarkable man. He is one of the wealthiest men alive and today he spends his time giving money away. However, he also has an awful lot to teach every one of us about how to be successful in life. He’s a great role model to follow even if you’re not a particularly big fan of Windows and Microsoft Office and as such, it’s worthwhile to pay attention when this man speaks and offers up his pearls of wisdom.