Microsoft's future No. 5: 'Gates was right' scenario

Everyone thought Bill Gates had no vision. As it turns out, he did. And he got the last laugh

Bill Gates didn't see much of Steve Ballmer anymore, now that Bill was skipping most of the board meetings. But when they met they'd share a good laugh. After all, although things went pretty much according to plan, they never imagined the company would reach such a peak. Good ol' MSFT was now bigger, in terms of market cap, than any company in the US. If it weren't for the Chinese banks, they'd be kings of the world.

Not that it was easy to get where they were. Well, the technology was easy, all considered. Everything the company needed to dominate the "software business" (as Gates insisted on calling it; he never liked carving it up into "business" and "consumer," or "desktop" and "Web," or "installed" and "hosted," which had always prevented people from thinking clearly about it) was already in place by 2010. The trick had simply been to stay the course and let the "idiotic fads" -- SaaS, cloud computing, virtual desktop, superthin clients, business cloud, the rest -- run out of steam. What was that other one? Bill could never remember. "Oh yeah, Web 2.0. Google and Web 2.0! Jesus," he exclaimed in an interview.

A decade after leaving the helm of Microsoft, Gates could now admit, in that told-you-so way of his, that those years had been painful for him. It was hard being criticized for being a technology laggard when in fact Microsoft's technology -- from the presentation layer to the back end -- was ahead of everyone. Well, almost everyone. As he told InfoWorld in an exclusive interview on the 10th anniversary of his departure as CEO:

But of course, who else had all the stuff we had? Larry Ellison? IBM? Steve Jobs, for crying out loud? Nobody! At least people know now that Google and Apple didn't matter. Blips. I kept saying it was about software-plus-services, and dammit, it was.

That was the key, our portfolio. Second to none. Back then, though, no one could see over their own desktops. Especially Wall Street. Windows and Office, Windows and Office, Windows and Office ... I can still hear them now. Sure, you couldn't dismiss Windows and Office -- still the most important software on the planet. They funded everything. But in those days, nobody gave us enough credit for all the stuff we built around the OS and apps -- the middleware, the communications, the rich media, the management and development tools. All the beautiful tools. And to have a lot of the neatest stuff, the really super stuff -- speech recognition, handwriting recognition, VoIP, the virtual reality -- written off as "Bill's adventures," that was hard to take. Wake up, people.

Couldn't they understand we would need it all? I mean, hello, we're working on the next generation of computing here. Wall Street, the press, the no-nothing analysts ... they have this mountain staring them in the face for 10 years, and the whole time all they can say is, "Where's your cloud? When are you going to put this in the cloud?" Well, here's your cloud, pal. You see it now, don't you? Yeah, a trillion-dollar cloud is hard to miss.

[ Gates was getting a little worked up, thinking back on it. Time to take a pill. --Ed.]

Of course, "cloud" isn't really the right word. That was the thing about software -- you could run it anywhere. On a client, or on a server, or on both at the same time -- what's the difference? Well, none of course. Same goes for operating systems and applications -- no difference, necessarily. People get stuck on the old concepts. Funny, back when we were pulling all the apps into the operating system, it was a crime. Ten years later, we've pulled the operating system into the applications (virtualization! now there's a word you never hear anymore), and no one blinks twice. And what's the difference? Not much. Idiots.

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Doug Dineley

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