Bill Gates: PC Genius, Internet Fool

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Robert Sorbo / Polaris

Bill Gates, who for years was the richest man in the world, is also one of the smartest. But even he couldn't figure out how to beat the Internet — how to transition his grand old monopoly software company, Microsoft, into a business that thrives on the Net. And so he begins his retirement today from Microsoft as the PC era's biggest winner, and the Web era's most spectacular casualty.

It's pretty well known by now that the Internet, for all its world-flattening glory, is a destroyer of businesses without parallel. How many companies roared along for decades, minting money, only to see the Internet eat their business plans? We live in a media age and the media industry is Exhibit A in the murder trial. Newspapers, magazines, music, television, movies — all of the traditional models are dead or dying as bloodied moguls everywhere scramble to survive. But the Net has brutalized old-line business across most industries — retail, telecom, financial services — and the technology industry itself, is, ironically, no exception.

Few companies not born on the Web have figured out how to thrive there. (Apple, with its post-PC iPhone, could be the shining exception.) As Gates turns his attention full time to philanthropy, I wonder what will be left of the great company he founded, Microsoft, by the time Gates picks up a Nobel Prize for Peace. Clearly, a business with $26 billion in cash reserves isn't exactly at death's door. And Microsoft continues to be enormously profitable, thanks to its operating system monopoly. Thanks, that is, to Gates's genius.

But big, complicated operating systems such as Microsoft's latest, Vista, aren't necessary in the Web Age, where applications are delivered for free and on demand — often without users' even being aware of it. The Net is where the money is, and it's the one place that Gates — like so many others — hasn't left his mark.

He saw the Internet missile coming, of course. But by the time he sounded the alarm, it may have been too late. (Read his famous "Internet Tidal Wave" memo, sent to the troops May 26, 1995, over a year after the browser company known as Netscape launched.)

Gates was always more accustomed to being a disruptor than being disrupted. At the age of 25, he licensed a primitive operating system, PC-DOS, to IBM for $80,000 rather than sell it outright, a move that's usually ranked as one of the Greatest Business Moves of All Time. Gates figured that many PC makers would copy IBM's open architecture, and make their own PCs; they'd need to license an operating system, too. PC-DOS soon became MS-DOS, an operating system for all IBM clones, and Microsoft was on its way to becoming the one thing that billions of PCs around the world would have in common.

From 1980 until 1994, when Mosaic/Netscape emerged, Gates played a scratch game, parlaying his little "Micro- Soft" company into an empire that defined the PC Era. By opening up Windows to third-party developers, he created a platform that made many developers rich, and built out an ecosystem that put a desktop in almost every home.

But there is no greater blinder than success, even for a visionary like Bill Gates. By the time he realized the tech world was quickly shifting from PCs to the network that connected them, his moves were limited. A fiercely competitive man, he reached for the obvious lever, and attempted to tie the late-starter Internet Explorer browser to the monopoly he created, the Windows operating system. The move was mercilessly effective and beat back rival Netscape, which immediately saw its commanding share of the browser market disappear.

It was also illegal. With Netscape crying foul, the Feds successfully pressed an antitrust suit against Microsoft. The PR damage — Gates acting insolent on the witness stand, showing a convenient lack of memory about key business decisions — turned out to be short-lived and is all but forgotten as Gates remakes himself as a philanthropist. But the court's decree forced the great general to march cautiously into the future. He may have won the Battle of the Browser, but he would start to see major casualties in the Internet War.

Gates built or bought all manner of things to conquer the Net, but few managed to be anything more than also-rans in the innovation game. In 1995, he launched a gated online service, MSN; a Web-based email client, Hotmail was purchased in 1997; a search engine, MSN Search, launched in 1998 using a third-party product as its core; a chat client, Messenger, was released in 1999; and last year it bought an online advertising platform, aQuantive and became a significant, though minority investor, in social network Facebook.

While Microsoft is exponentially larger than Google — number 44 on the Fortune 500 list versus Google at 150 — Google's Web business (advertising mostly) is growing so fast, it's poised to rival Redmond's operating system revenues by 2010. And that's the problem. As more and more of what Windows does moves up into the cloud — into Google's always-on, give-'em-whatever-they-want-for-free servers — what becomes of the company that Gates built?

The smartest move Gates could make right now is to get out of the way. (Steve Ballmer should, too; pursuing Yahoo is a pretty good hint that his master plan for the Web is, like Gates's was, to try to buy Microsoft's way into the game.) There are many smart and talented people inside Microsoft who know what to do. (Blow up Vista and abandon its next iteration, Windows 7, and start from scratch, is but one excellent idea).

That will probably work. And if not? Maybe we'll see Gates return, a Nobel in his pocket, ready to wrestle with the Web once again.