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Why Bill Gates is rich and I’m not

Many people think of Bill Gates as a monopolist, but my opinion is very different.

In 1983, Microsoft was busy developing the first version of Windows. I was working at Sorcim, and we were making our own windowing system. It was obvious to everyone that the industry was moving in the direction of graphic interfaces, but at that point, the only commercial windowing system was Apple’s Lisa. Nobody had mice, and only a few computers were networked. There were also some pseudo-graphical programs like ContextMBA.

Windows 386 Promotional Video
It’s long, but watch the whole thing, it’s hilarious

True, we knew the Mac was coming. And VisiCorp had already shipped a graphical interface product (VisiOn), but even compared to the original slow Macs, it was glacial and clunky. Oh yes, Digital Research, which was still a player back then, was working on its own windowing system, called Gem.

Gates came to visit us in the Summer of 1983 to try to get us to port SuperCalc to Windows. It was an impressive show – Leo Nikora was running the show, and Microsoft brought along a few OEM VPs (Compaq, Data General and others).

We didn’t think that Microsoft was building Windows properly – in fact, we had rejected some of the technology they were using. And they wrote the original version of Windows in C, which had real performance issues back then. In contrast, being the “real programmers” we were, we were doing everything in Assembler – and we made all our own graphic engines.

We took a totally different approach from Microsoft’s. First we acquired some basic windowing technology (maybe another blog post – it seemed awfully similar to DR’s Gem). But the biggest difference was that we commissioned Umang Gupta to develop a database kernal as the core of our system. (Gupta left Oracle to start Gupta Technologies, and our project – and a similar project from Lotus – funded his startup.)

We had a lively discussion. Gates had no bodyguards in those days, and he was just a geek like everyone else in the room. Another point of perspective: Microsoft sales were about $74 million, and ours were close to $20 million, so we were within striking distance. Lotus was the biggest microcomputer software company at that point, with $100 million in sales.

So we fought – in a friendly geeky kind of way – about how a windowing system should be built. And we were right about one thing: Microsoft had to reprogram Windows in Assembler to get even the rotten performance they got on the first version of Windows.

How does this tie in with this post’s title? I wondered if you would ever ask…

We had great ideas. Arguably, our product would have been better than Microsoft’s for at least two reasons:

  1. We had better programming staff, and our applications were much better than theirs.
  2. We spent a lot of time on the plumbing – the database kernel – so all the applications would work from the same data (which is still problematic in Windows).
Phillipe Kahn and Steve Ballmer in a quiet momemt

Phillipe Kahn and Steve Ballmer in a quiet momemt

Ah, but Bill delivered – and we didn’t. He stayed on course until he finally built a reasonable version of Windows (yeah, I know, we’re still waiting). He did this because he was a much better manager than our president. And many people fail to realize just how good Gates has always been at picking a #2 man. He could always be a product visionary because he had management strength behind him.

While Microsoft struggled to make a good windowing program, Sorcim hit a stone wall, and the board (and our investors) forced management to sell the company to Computer Associates. (No, not the people who went to jail, but their predecessors who should have — oops, better not say that.)

The moral of this story is that Gates is rich because he’s smarter than I am,  because he had control over his company, because he didn’t sell out to Computer Associates, and maybe because he had a little luck along the way.

But I’ll say this: he certainly earned my respect. I may not have liked his products or some of Microsoft’s business practices, but I surely respected his competence and persistence.

Posted in Back in the day.

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