Reading The Road Ahead 19 Years Later – Chapter 3: Lessons from the Computer Industry

It’s been nearly fourteen years since Bill Gates resigned from his position as Microsoft CEO. He was succeeded by Steve Ballmer, who recently announced his own retirement. In the intervening years, the computer revolution opened a new front: mobile and connected devices.

The Road Ahead was published nearly five years before Gates would pass the torch and during that time the computer industry would transform from one of discrete machines to one of networked computing. The Internet and, as Gates says, the “information highway” would become a standard communication method in homes alongside telephone service and cable TV. In chapter three, Gates looks back on his time in the computer industry. A time when the PC merely entering the home was ending and the beginning of the computer becoming a terminal that can access all the information in the world.

Gates looks back on his time at Microsoft from the mid-90s when Microsoft, Windows, and Intel seemed to be an unconquerable alliance of strength. As Homer Simpson might say “You hear me? No comeuppance!”  Given the current view of Microsoft: lumbering, out of touch, and suffering from a failure of leadership, Gates’ observations could serve as a lesson to every member of the leadership at the company he founded.

Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose. And it’s an unreliable guide to the future. What seems the perfect business plan or latest technology today may soon be as out-of-date as the eight-track player, the vacuum-tube television, or the mainframe computer. I’ve watched it happen.

There’s a philosophical aspect to Gates’ perception of his industry: he wanted to learn the lessons of those who failed and take from them the knowledge to remain strong. Recounting the stories of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and Wang Laboratories, Gates tells stories of triumph and tragedy. Companies that began as young, innovative, and inspiring (both to attract customers and create a desire among workers to join and be part of their success) turned a corner and became the followers rather than the leaders. Their visionary founders suddenly looked like they were standing still as new hotshots emerged.

Gates lists “Apple, Compaq, Lotus, Oracle, Sun, and Microsoft” as new companies that rose from nothing to topple giants. An interesting list today. Since 1995, Compaq merged with HP, Lotus was absorbed by IBM, and Sun was acquired by Oracle. Apple, of course, became old but then reinvented itself with the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad, making Steve Jobs the visionary leader he is remembered as.

What about Microsoft? Well, Microsoft still makes money. Lots of it. But it is not the company on people’s lips. It is not the place young people want to work. It’s the company that makes the products people have to use for work (Microsoft Office), the Xbox, and Windows. These are successful products, no doubt about it, but don’t provide enough thrust to fully escape the dangerous situation Gates observed in other companies. Even the Xbox is more of the exception that proves the rule than a real sign that Microsoft is adapting.

Microsoft grew into a powerhouse because it’s software became the standard with which everyone wanted to ensure compatibility. Gates talks about Microsoft BASIC and the power of the de facto standard emerging from the marketplace, like compact discs replacing vinyl records and QWERTY becoming, essentially, the only keyboard layout. MS-DOS would follow this same path through the licensing deal with IBM. MS-DOS became the most attractive operating system on the large player in the market and others then followed suit.

While this discussion of de facto standards and history is interesting, what’s really fascinating is to look at a few comments Gates makes that have some meaning on Microsoft’s current situation.

In terms of flexibility, Gates uses an example that jumped out at me: “Given a choice between a beautiful, handcrafted mailbox with an opening that would accommodate only one size envelope, and an old carton that everyone routinely dropped all mail and messages into, you’d use the one with broader access. You would choose compatibility.”

Microsoft currently has a problem of  operating system abundance: Windows 8.1, Windows RT, and Windows Phone 8 are all fighting for the Windows throne. All use the new Metro design language full of flat shapes and bold colors. Windows 8.1 is the operating system for laptops and desktops, RT is the Windows for ARM processors (used on the Surface RT, though not the Intel-powered Surface Pro), and Phone is self explanatory. Microsoft has crafted three mailboxes that each serve a separate, but overlapping, market segment.

The Xbox is also running a flavor of Windows but the access to that platform is much more restrictive than any of the traditional Windows platforms because game consoles are their own beast.

Gates’ proud statement that “[a]nyone can develop application software that runs on the Windows platform, without having to notify or get permission from Microsoft” is potentially under fire these days from the app store model. App stores can put a barrier between creators and customers. Apple enforces this idea of a curated experience more than Google, Amazon, and Microsoft – and can deny an app admission or request changes for any variety of reasons – but potentially a world where all software must approved by the operating system creator is creeping up on us. While HTML5 and webapps can continue to fulfill the promise of “write once, run anywhere” native software will always exist.

Approval by an appstore can raise quality and ensure compatibility, but it can put a limit on innovation if the software company running the store is calling the shots. As MS-DOS was transitioning to Windows 95 and Windows NT in 1995, Gates described almost perfectly the situation Microsoft is facing today, with the Windows 7 / Windows 8 transition:

Existing users would not upgrade and we wouldn’t get any new ones. Our revenue would fall and many more companies would compete to take our place…You can’t rest on your  laurels, because there is always a competitor coming up behind you.

The saga of Metro, the Start menu leaving, somewhat returning, and potentially regaining prominence in the successor to Windows 8.1 is a sign that Microsoft can’t simply force the market to move with them.

Tablets and phone running iOS and Android (or Android-based FireOS) are the companies jumping to take advantage of Microsoft’s awkward transition from desktop computing to touch computing. Ubuntu is making a phone and tablet version of it’s Linux offering. Firefox is making a phone operating system. Customers want the Windows they know (Windows 95 through Windows 7) and not the new Metro UI.

Bill Gates left Microsoft before it’s leadership position was in jeopardy. Could he have seen these struggles coming in his own company or would Gates’ Microsoft, like DEC and Wang, have faltered anyway?

Reading The Road Ahead 19 Years Later – Chapter 2: The Beginning of the Information Age

The first time I heard the term “Information Age” I was tantalized. I knew about the Iron Age and the Bronze Age, periods of history named for the new materials men used to make their tools and weapons. Those were specific eras. Then I read academics predicting that countries will be fighting over the control of information, not natural resources. This sounded intriguing too, but what did they mean by information?

In the second chapter of The Road Ahead, Bill Gates describes the new world that began in earnest with the Internet, but has roots going back further. Remembering that in 1995 the idea of the “multimedia PC” was just beginning to take root. Compact Discs were the new medium of storage – holding the equivalent of just under five hundred floppy disks – bringing audio and full-motion video to fourteen inch CRT monitors everywhere.

This chapter, unlike chapter one, is focused more on history than prediction. The explanations of exactly what technologists mean, why they use binary numbering, and why that makes sense for a language to communicate with machines is Gates at his most tech-geek self. Even as someone familiar with this part of the story, whom Gates gives the option to skip the chapter, it was an enjoyable read.

This may be the chapter of The Road Ahead that holds up the best over time. Gates takes the reader on a brief journey of computing, beginning with the abacus, moving on to Blaise Pascal, Gottfried von Leibniz, and Charles Babbage, onto ENIAC and IBM. Interestingly, the Computer History Museum, of which Gates has been a proponent and sponsor, is laid out in a similar fashion, guiding museum goers through a history of math, science, and machinery. If you’re in the vicinity of Mountain View, CA it’s well worth the trip.

Reading an account of the computer revolution before Windows 95, when Microsoft was the dominant presence in the computing world is fascinating. Bill Gates was already “of Borg” but the computer landscape was non-connected desktops. Not too many laptops, no smartphones, no tablets. Even Windows CE devices are a few years off.

Each moment in history, each anecdote shared, is the one chosen by Gates. He compares the journey from analog to digital storage with the way compression techniques are evolving to the eventual rollout of fiber optic cabling and the bandwidth that the “information highway” will require. Doing so, he brings up mathematician Claude Shannon who “defined information as the reduction of uncertainty…if you’re not sure of the day and someone tells you it is Saturday, you’ve been given information because your uncertainty has been reduced.”

Despite his own speculation and expectation of fiber expanding, Internet Explorer was first released in Microsoft Plus! for Windows 95, an expansion pack. Later version of IE were available for free downloads, but IE debuted separate from Microsoft’s prominent operating system.

Gates writes ambitiously about fiber rolling out to provide a data pipe to serve for phone call, data, movies. Nearly twenty years later 70 percent of the United States has access to a broadband connection. The next generation of gigabit-capable infrastructure is rolling out – Google Fiber, Sonic, and even AT&T – are competing to wire up households in the coming years. LTE is marketed as the standard technology for over-the-air data in 2013 when the original iPhone was launched without 3G (although it was in other handsets) in 2007.

Reading The Road Ahead 19 Years Later – Chapter One: A Revolution Begins

When Bill Gates wrote The Road Ahead he looked back on the previous twenty years of his life, Microsoft, and the history of computing, while considering where that path would take society.

Windows 95 was a new revolution in computing, the Internet was still in its infancy, and the original Pentium processor was king of the machines. I remember filling in as a paperboy that summer delivering an issue of the afternoon paper to an elderly customer who thought I must know all about this “Windows” (and he was right). It was the first operating system I installed from a CD, so much easier than floppy disks.

What struck me about Gates’ view of the tech world at the time was not just Microsoft’s motto of “A computer on every desk and in every home” but how he thought we would interact with devices in just a few short years.

“We’ll communicate with it [the network] through a variety of devices, including some that look like television sets, some like today’s PCs; some will look like telephones, and some will be the size and something like the shape of a wallet. And at the heart of each will be a powerful computer, invisibly connected to millions of others.”1

Spot on.

Maybe it’s because I wasn’t even in high school at the time, but I didn’t think that the computing power shown on Star Trek would be in our hands just over a decade from that point, when the iPhone would make Gates’ predictions available to the masses. Combine the idea of the telephone with the wallet-sized device and you’ve just created the smartphone.

Echoing the words of French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (“Little by little, the machine will become a part of humanity”2), Gates described and predicted the relationship that would develop between humanity and this new type of connected computer:

“Over time, these machines find a place in our everyday lives because they not only offer convenience and save labor, they can also inspire us to new creative heights. We warm to them. They assume a trusted place beside our other tools.”

Indeed, who does not consider their phone a vital accessory today? Communication, photography, entertainment, navigation – the networked computer, in all form factors, is the robot butler from science fiction. It is Rosie The Jetsons, the computer book from Inspector Gadget, the PADD from Star Trek, and the tool Sean Connery’s James Bond could only dream of.

Three years before Google was founded, and search engines were still a concept biting off more than they could chew, Bill Gates posed fifteen questions that the computers of tomorrow would handle but that in 1995 would be difficult to answer at a moment’s notice.

1. “Is your bus running on time?”

2. “Are there any accidents right now on the route you usually take to the office?”

3. “Does anyone want to trade his or her Thursday theater tickets for your Wednesday tickets?”

4. “What is your child’s school-attendance record?”

5. “What’s a good recipe for halibut?”

6. “Which store, anywhere, can deliver by tomorrow morning for the lowest price a wristwatch that takes your pulse?”

7. “What would someone pay for my old Mustang convertible?”

8. “How is the hole in a needle manufactured?”

9. “Are your shirts ready yet at the laundry?”

10. “What’s the cheapest way to subscribe to The Wall Street Journal?”

11. “What are the symptoms of a heart attack?”

12. “Was there any interesting testimony at the county courthouse today?”

13. “Do fish see in color?”

14. “What does the Champs-Elysées look like right now?”

15. “Where were you at 9:02 P.M. last Thursday?”

One and two can be handled by Google Now displaying cards automatically showing this information. Alternatively, Google Maps or Waze apps could show the accidents, traffic delays, and more.

Three and seven can be solved with Craigslist.

Five, eight, eleven, and thirteen are Google searches. Even speaking them to my phone in question form brought up the answers.

Where was I at 9:02 last Thursday? That one still takes some work, but querying Google on an Android phone (What did I do last week?)  brought up my calendar events for the last week, which was a start. Timehop, which creates a chronology of your social media events, check-ins, tweets, and photos could do a better job, but at pointing you in the right direction.

Instagram and twitter had several pictures of the Champs-Elysées that were at least in the area, if not exactly what the search is looking for, although that in itself is somewhat vague. This query will probably only improve in how easily and accurately the answer is readily available.

The Wall Street Journal…well, a quick Google search yielded an 80% discount and, surprisingly, an eBay auction. Checking Slickdeals probably wouldn’t hurt either.

A text notification from a laundromat takes care of number nine.

Amazon can sell you the watch, but maybe not by tomorrow or at the cheapest price…this one is still in development. But with Google, eBay, Amazon, and more working on same-day delivery solutions, that will be something that can be searched quickly in the near future.

That just leaves school attendance. This one is tricky, but not impossible to solve. Before long all schools will likely have a portal for parents to log in and find out any information about their child. Some no doubt already have a version of this, like Follet’s Aspen SIS, and others will follow. It’s not hard to imagine parents having direct access to attendance, grades, homework assignments and more to keep their kids on track.

Thinking about how much work many of these questions, such as the one regarding fish vision, would take to find twenty years ago, the average person today sits atop a vast storehouse of data and needs to speak or type a few words to glean answers from previously insurmountable chaos.

When Gates first used a computer, access was metered in hours. When he wrote this book, Internet access was measured in the same way, purchased in minutes per month. Today, in an unmetered, networked world, many of his goals in the 1990s are the world we live in.

1. William, G. (1995). The road ahead. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

2. de Saint-Exupéry, A. (1939). Wind,sand, and stars. New York, NY: Reynal and Hitchcock.