Getting down to Basics
I was surprised to learn from The Sunday Telegraph last week that Bill Gates "invented the Basic programming language for one of the world's first microcomputers". And there was I thinking all these years that John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz came up with Basic at Dartmouth College in the mid-1960s.
To be charitable, you could say that the accuracy of The Sunday Telegraph's statement turns on an interpretation of the word "invented". Gates produced a version of Basic for an early micro. He fitted the language to a new purpose. There was an element of innovation about the work. But invention?
No-one would claim that an engineer at Birmingham Small Arms invented the internal combustion engine for one of the world's first motorcycles?
So the newspaper was guilty either of error or exaggeration - but of stupidity in either case. Myths are fertilised by such carelessness. The nonsense about Gates' inventive powers was used by the paper to justify its claim: "Aged 20, Gates was already a computing legend." There are two dangers in this kind of drivel. First, obviously, is the risk that people might believe it. Second, it isn't the kind of language to encourage a sense of perspective.
Perspective is especially important at the moment because Gates has been getting so much free publicity. This has arisen from the attention the US Department of Justice has been giving Microsoft. Anyone who followed similar proceedings against IBM will be amused at the way the national papers are using all their ammunition at once. What will they use to keep their readers interested over the next 15 years as the story unfolds?
As for the rights and wrongs of this case, the handy US terminology of the charge against Microsoft tells the story. The company faces an anti-trust action. Its activities are presumably deemed to be prejudicial to trust. Who could have summed the situation up more succinctly? Look at a picture of any senior Microsoft official and ask yourself: would you buy a used car off that person?
A small doubt must linger over the credulity of the people framing the charges, however. If trust is their default state, if they are disposed to trust businessmen and women automatically until given a clear reason not to, we may doubt whether they are in the right job. Their trust, charming as it may be, must be a serious handicap in their line of work. Would you buy a used car off any of Microsoft's accusers in the IT business?
Quite. So where is the difference, as far as trust is concerned?
Companies in any line of business prefer to eliminate uncertainty; they like to be able to control their markets as far as possible. If a company grows large enough, the possibility of meeting those goals grows too.
Eventually the company will be big enough to make life impossible for competitors. Without competitors it can tell customers what they can have.
This is more or less what Microsoft is accused of. Who is to say that if Digital Research had won the IBM PC operating system business all those years ago it would not now be in exactly the same position?
My own complaint against Microsoft is (despite The Sunday Telegraph's awed assertions) the company's poor record of innovation. I would struggle to name an original Microsoft idea. Where a product is its own, the inspiration invariably lies elsewhere.
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