A Harvard drop out with penchant for programming and a whole lot of chutzpah turned out to be one of the most influential leaders of the microcomputer era. In the course of helping define the software industry, Bill Gates won himself a place as one of the most influential people in electronics.
Computers fascinated Gates from an age. He learned Basic and reportedly wrote in Cobol a payroll program for his high school.
The advent of early microcomputers such as the Altair 8800 sparked his imagination. He instinctively saw the potential for a whole new industry in writing software for the emerging systems and dropped out of Harvard to participate in it.
With little more than his understanding of programming and desire to get a foot in the door, he snared a deal to supply a Basic interpreter for the Altair. The business established Microsoft in 1976 as a young and hungry company that first set up shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
But it was Gates’ deal to create an operating system for IBM’s skunkworks project that set the course for the company and the microcomputer industry. The IBM PC and its DOS software spawned a clone industry, creating one of the fastest growing and most dynamic markets for chips through the 1980’s and ‘90’s.
The boldness the young Gates showed snagging big deals evolved into a passion to steer the rocket of the PC industry he was riding. He leveraged Microsoft’s DOS and follow-on Windows franchises to build what became one of the world’s most valuable companies. Gates’ personal wealth at its peak briefly exceeded $100 billion.
Often mocked for its sluggish performance and unreliability, Windows nevertheless provided a unified mass market platform for microprocessors, displays and more. Microsoft also helped define key technologies for Windows PCs such as PCI and USB that rippled out to systems designs of all descriptions.
Microsoft wrote detailed hardware design guides for various classes of desktops, notebooks and servers. Its specs and initiatives could quickly open or close new markets for chips, peripherals and applications. Ultimately, the U.S. Department of Justice decided Microsoft crossed a line, convicting the company of antitrust violations.
Sometimes Gates’ technical ambitions also exceeded his grasp.
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At the peak of his prowess, Gates was passionate about the coming era of mobile computing. He tried to drive an early generation of tablets with Windows for Pen Computing, but the vision was ahead of the technology. Systems were oversized, underpowered and overpriced.
Gates also was convinced voice recognition would play a key role in the future of computing. While the technology has improved remarkably in the last twenty years, it is still based on what researchers consider fundamentally flawed hidden Markov models that will not support voice as a primary user interface anytime soon.
As strong an imprint as he had on the PC, Gates was not able to lead the industry or Microsoft into the post-PC era. Ultimately, his archrival Steve Jobs took on that role as Gates stepped aside to form one of the largest philanthropic enterprises of any American tycoon. In this way, Gates was able to provide leadership for a generation of entrepreneurs seeking encore careers that would give something back to society.