Accidental Empires, Part 5 -- The Demi-God (Chapter 1b)

Fifth in a Series. Editor: Serialization continues of landmark 1991 book Accidental Empires, looking at younger Microsoft CEO Bill Gates and Microsoft Word 3.0 for Macintosh -- proverbial vaporware at the time.

Several hundred users of Apple Macintosh computers gathered one night in 1988 in an auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to watch a sneak preview demonstration of a new word processing application. This was consumerism in its most pure form: it drew potential buyers together to see a demonstration of a product they could all use but wouldn’t be allowed to buy. There were no boxes for sale in the back of the room, no "send no money, we’ll bill you later". This product flat wasn’t for sale and wouldn’t be for another five months.

Why demonstrate it at all? The idea was to keep all these folks, and the thousands of people they would talk to in the coming weeks, from buying some competitor’s program before this product -- this Microsoft Word 3.0 -- was ready for the market. Macintosh users are the snobs of the personal computer business. "Don’t buy MacWrite II, WordPerfect for Macintosh, or Write-Now", they’d urge their friends and co-workers. "You’ve got to wait for Microsoft Word 3.0. It’s radical!"

But it also didn’t work.

To make the demonstration even more compelling, it was to be given by Bill Gates, Microsoft’s billionaire boy chairman of the board who had flown in from Seattle for that night only. (This follows the theory that if Chrysler issued invitations to look through a telescope at one of its new minivans circling a test track, more people would be willing to look if Lee Iacocca was the driver.)

There is an art to demonstrating a computer program like this -- a program that isn’t really finished being written. The major parts of the program were there, but if the software had been complete, Microsoft would have been taking money for it. It would have been for sale in the back of the room. The fact that this was only a demonstration and that the only fingers touching the keyboard that night would be those of the highly talented Bill Gates proved that the program was in no way ready to be let loose among paying customers.

What the computer users would be seeing was not really a demonstration of software but a virtuoso performance of man and machine. Think of Microsoft Word 3.0 as a minefield in Kuwait and Bill Gates as a realtor trying to sell a few lots there before all of the land mines have been cleared. To show how safe the property is, he’d give a tour, steering prospects gently away from the remaining mines without telling them they were even in danger.

"Looks safe to me, honey", the prospective buyer would say. "Let’s talk business while the kids play in the yard".

"NO!!!"

That night in Ann Arbor, according to testers back in the Microsoft quality assurance department, the version of Microsoft Word that Gates was demonstrating contained six land mines. There were known to be six Type-A bugs in the software, any one of which could lock up the Macintosh computer in an instant, sending Aunt Helen’s gothic romance into the ether at the same time. All Gates had to do was guide his demo past these six danger areas to make Ann Arbor and the rest of the Macintosh world think that all was well with Microsoft Word 3.0.

Gates made it through the demonstration with only one mistake that completely locked up -- crashed -- the computer. Not good enough for the automotive world, of course, where having to push the car back from the test drive would usually kill a sale, but computer users are forgiving souls; they don’t seem to mind much if the gas tank of their digital Pinto occasionally explodes. Heck, what’s one crash among friends?

In fact, the demo was brilliant, given that the Microsoft QA department had no idea how bad the program really was. Word 3.0 turned out to have not six but more than 600 major bugs when it finally shipped five months later, proving once again that Bill Gates is a demo-god.

Late night in Ann Arbor brings with it the limited pleasures of any college town -- movie houses, pizzerias, and bars, each filled with a mix of students and townies that varies in direct relation to its distance from the University of Michigan campus. Bored with the Lysol ambiance of the Holiday Inn, the pair aimed their rental car into the heart of town, looking for something, well, different. Bill Gates sat on the passenger side, sniffing like a setter the evening air through his open window, a 33-year-old billionaire on the prowl.

The Word 3.0 demo was over, but Gates, now a little drunk, apparently had a few things left to prove.

"Here, stop here!" Gates commanded, jumping unsteadily from the car as it settled next to the curb near a group of young blacks.

"What’s happening!" the pencil-necked billionaire cheerfully greeted the assembled boom boxers, who clearly had no idea who or what he was -- this bespectacled white boy with greasy blond hair and bratwurst skin, wearing a blue and white plaid polyester shirt and green pullover sweater.

"Bill, let’s go someplace else", called Gates’s companion from the driver’s seat.

"Yeah, Bill, go someplace else", said one of the young blacks.

"Nah, I want to rap. I can talk to these guys, you’ll see!"

This is not just a gratuitous "Bill Gates gets drunk" story. "I can [fill in the blank], you’ll see!" is the battle cry of the personal computing revolution and the entire philosophical basis of Microsoft’s success and Gates’s $4 billion fortune.

This guy thinks he has something to prove. A zillion dollars isn’t enough, 7,000 employees who idolize him aren’t enough -- in fact, nothing is enough to prove to Bill Gates and to all the folks like him in the personal computer business that they are finally safe from the bigger, stronger, stupider kids who used to push them around on the playground.

"I can (fill in the blank], you’ll seel" is a cry of adolescent defiance and enthusiasm, a cry as much against the status quo as it is in favor of something new. It’s a cry at once of confidence and of the uncertainty that lies behind any overt need to prove one’s manhood. And it’s the cry that rings, at least metaphorically, across the desks of 45 million Americans as they power up their personal computers at the start of each working day.

There was no urge to fly, to see the world, to win a war, to cure disease, or even to get rich that explains how the personal computer business came to be or even how it runs today. Instead, the game was started to satisfy the needs of disenfranchised nerds like Bill Gates who didn’t meet the macho standards of American maleness and so looked for a way to create their own adolescent alternative to the adult world and, through that creation, gain the admiration of their peers.

This is key: they did it (and do it) to impress each other.

In the mid-1970s, when it was hard to argue that there even was a PC industry, 19-year-old Bill Gates thought that he could write a high-level programming language -- a version of the BASIC language -- to run on the then-unique Altair hobbyist computer. Even the Altair’s designers thought that their machine was too primitive to support such a language, but Gates, with his friend Paul Allen, thought otherwise. "We can write that BASIC interpreter, you’ll seel" they said. And they were right: Microsoft was born.

When Steve Wozniak built the first Apple computer, his goal was not to create an industry, to get rich, or even to produce more than one of the machines; he just wanted to impress his friends in Silicon Valley’s Homebrew Computer Club. The idea to manufacture the Apple I for sale came from Wozniak’s friend, Steve Jobs, who wanted to make his mark too, but lacked Woz’s technical ability. Offering a VW Microbus and use of his parents’ garage in payment for a share of his friend’s glory, Jobs literally created the PC industry we know today.

These pioneers of personal computing were people who had little previous work experience and no previous success. Wozniak was an undistinguished engineer at Hewlett-Packard. Jobs worked part time at a video game company. Neither had graduated from college. Bill Gates started Microsoft after dropping out of Harvard during his sophomore year. They were just smart kids who came up with an angle that they have exploited to the max.

Reprinted with permission

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