Thursday 03 July 2008

by: Christopher Kuttruff, t r u t h o u t | Report

(Illustration by Dan Smith)

    As one of the most influential techno-moguls of modern computing looks toward the next chapter of his life, many computer users begin to seek a new technological paradigm.

    On Friday, June 27, Microsoft co-founder and world's first "centibillionaire" Bill Gates stepped down from his daily involvement with the competition-shattering company that he established more than 30 years ago. While he maintains his position as chairman, Gates has decided to devote his time to philanthropy through The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


    The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the largest charities in the world and is dedicated to issues of global health and poverty. It manages an endowment of almost 40 billion dollars.

    As he moves on to other activities, Gates leaves behind a legacy in the field of computer technology that remains controversial. While Gates's influence on the computer industry is undeniable, the nature of that influence is subject to constant scrutiny. About three decades after Microsoft's inception, many more independent "competitors" have plunged into obscurity or gone out of business altogether, and many computer users feel restricted by their systems.

    To co-workers, friends and proponents of his business views, Gates has been an innovator and visionary; but to companies that have been crippled by Microsoft's market power (such as Netscape and Be Inc.), and to many dissatisfied computer users, Gates has been a ruthless corporate executive who has betrayed many of the fundamental principles that have sparked a plethora of technological advancements.

    Gates developed an interest in computer programming at a young age. While attending the Lakeside School, an exclusive preparatory institution near Seattle, Gates began working with teletypes and programming in several different languages. In a 2005 keynote address to his old school, Gates reflected on his Lakeside experiences of time-sharing (the process of borrowing computing power from a mainframe) and making small but practical programs.

    His teenage experiences at Lakeside became the foundation for his later career. Gates quickly pursued more ambitious projects, and by his mid-20s, Gates acquired an operating system (DOS) from Seattle Computer Products, which he customized and re-branded as MS-DOS. MS-DOS, a basic command-line operating system (OS), was integrated into IBM's personal computer in 1981.

    Microsoft's deal with IBM proved especially significant because Gates managed to retain full ownership of the operating system (a concept which allowed him to later use his OS on different computer systems). This separation of OS from computer hardware, which differed from Apple's model of OS-hardware pairing, proved a profitable idea and contributed to greater standardization of hardware.

    While his business practices have made Bill Gates perhaps the most recognizable name in computing, many individuals have sharply criticized Gates and Microsoft for a set of practices they deem anti-competitive and stifling.


    Gates took a firm philosophical stance early in his career. In a February 1976 letter to computer hobbyists, a frustrated Gates wrote: "As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid? Is this fair?"

    The letter was in response to individuals using his programming language interpreter without paying him any royalties for the usage. This was an unusual response in the programming community for a variety of reasons. Many computer enthusiasts, confronted with uncharted digital territory and fragmented, obscure problems, encouraged an open and cooperative community. In order to control distribution and profits, Gates later adopted a fiercely closed, proprietary business model.

    Microsoft's influence on the computer market is pervasive. It commands a dominant percentage of the OS market, and the company's success has made its chairman one of the richest individuals in the world. This success, however, has prompted significant resistance and opposition.

    Critics have accused Microsoft of anti-competitive activities, resulting in the formation of a monopoly. Such individuals point to what they consider improper promotion of proprietary software, as well as deals made with manufacturers to automatically bundle their OS with computers being distributed to customers and resellers.

    Such practices have driven out smaller companies such as Be Inc, whose BeOS (widely recognized by computer enthusiasts as a clean and worthy operating system) was driven out by Microsoft. Estimates of Microsoft's market share range as high as 90 percent – a number disputed by some, given the growing popularity of GNU/Linux (a free, open-source operating system).

    These, and other allegations resulted in the 1998 antitrust case, US v. Microsoft.

    "Viewed together, three main facts indicate that Microsoft enjoys monopoly power. First, Microsoft's share of the market for Intel-compatible PC operating systems is extremely large and stable. Second, Microsoft's dominant market share is protected by a high barrier to entry. Third, and largely as a result of that barrier, Microsoft's customers lack a commercially viable alternative to Windows." (III.34)

    The settlement reached required that Microsoft open up its application programming interface to developers and allow a small panel to monitor their activities for five years.

    The conflict between Microsoft and many computer companies and users, however, is far from settled, as criticisms abound. Complaints range from security issues, to stability, to ease of use. But much of the tension between Microsoft and the community stems from the company's closed-source model.

    The Battle for the Code

    Many problems and concerns that people have with modern operating systems, such as Microsoft's Windows and Apple's OS X, extend from the lack of availability of much of the source code. The source code is the human-readable (well, programmer-readable) format of an operating system's core composition. In operating systems such as GNU/Linux and FreeBSD, the OS is transparent and configurable by the user. While from a computer user's perspective, this may seem an esoteric and unimportant detail, availability of source code is extremely important for developers, hardware designers, and yes, for the computer user.

    For example, if an operating system crashes, and displays a blue screen with a cryptic error, most individuals might have to contact tech-support or take the computer in for a potentially expensive repair or reinstall of the operating system. Such a situation (warmly referred to as the "blue screen of death" in Windows) is a cause of much frustration, given the fact that the bug or problem is not necessary transparent, even for the experienced user.

    Many computer users have eagerly sought what they consider a more reliable, secure, unambiguous operating system for their personal computers. This has resulted in a surge of popularity in certain GNU/Linux OSs. As an interesting example of this growing trend, one could compare the number of uploaders and downloaders ("seeders" and "leechers") of a popular GNU/Linux OS (eg. Ubuntu) on a popular peer-to-peer bittorrent site with a popular piece of media available on such a web site. The ratio of GNU/Linux OS to popular media is significant (20 to 50 times more). This gives an adequate idea of how quickly GNU/Linux use is increasing.

    The Next Chapter

    As Gates transitions his focus to his philanthropy, the chairman of Microsoft, through his departure from active duty at his company, has sparked a period of reflection for the computing community. Many of these disputes collapse into familiar flame wars between Microsoft and Apple, but much discussion has become fixated on the next generation of computer technology. As people adjust to the mental and social changes of a new, technological paradigm, the visionaries of Gen X develop radical, new ideas of computers and how they will impact us all.