On this day in 1975, Microsoft was formed by two computer mediocrities Paul Allen and Bill Gates. Thanks to them, the personal computer was held back for years. But they were successful as a company because they were ruthless. But let’s remember what these guys did. They wrote a BASIC interpreter in Intel 8080 assembly language. And I know that sounds impressive. But let me set you straight.
When I was in graduate school, I wrote my own text editor in 8086 assembly language. It didn’t take that long. And it was really fun to do. A BASIC interpreter is more work, but it isn’t that big a deal. But here’s the thing: I did that on my own, in addition to, you know, taking classes and trying to figure out how permafrost worked. But I had never taken a computer programming class. I didn’t and do not (despite having created huge and amazing software creations) think of myself as a computer programmer.
So I just don’t think much of people like Allen and Gates — or for that matter, Steve Wozniak, although being more of a hardware guy I give him some credit. And you know you don’t want to get me started on Steve Jobs. But the truth is that even most people who consider themselves technically minded get fooled about this kind of stuff. So what follows is the truth.
There are lots of brilliant programmers and computer scientists around and there have been since the 1950s. Even I could have been one if I had been so inclined (but I’m not ever interested in anything for that long). So the people who we hold up as masters of technology are almost always just technically oriented people who got rich. And that’s exclusively about ruthlessness and luck.
So what would have happened if Bill Gates and Paul Allen had never been born and there had not been a Microsoft? Well, IBM would have hired someone else to provide the operating system for their personal computer. (Note that I said “provide” given that Microsoft wrote almost none of it.) Would things have been better or worse? We can’t say, but I assume better, because I really think Microsoft held things back. Then again, maybe Apple would have been more successful and that would have been a similar catastrophe.