Feature

Imagine there's no Bill Gates...

Chaos theory tells us that the flutter of a butterfly wing in Brazil can alter the weather on the other side of the globe. So what would the world look like if what is arguably the most influential company in the most dynamic industry on the planet had never existed. Danny Bradbury reports

Have you ever wondered what would have happened if Bill Gates had, for instance, taken an arts degree? What if he had never started tinkering around with Basic for the Altair computer back in 1975, but instead had discovered a love for the paintings of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and had embarked on a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, to explore the works of the romantic period?

Things would no doubt have turned out very differently, although it is still possible that Gates would be a prominent public figure. People like Gates tend to rise to the top in one way or another. Perhaps he would be a leading artist, producing stunning paintings and photographic images, rather than simply buying the electronic rights to them all, as he is doing now.

What would have happened to the rest of the industry? It's unlikely that very much would've changed early on. Consider Microsoft's impact on the business until IBM launched the PC, and you'll find that it was fairly minimal. In fact, from a microcomputing standpoint Gary Kildall's Digital Research was a leading light, with a huge market share of this immature market in the late 1970s, when there were many different microcomputing players, none of whom was dominant.

Things would only have departed from our real-world timeline after IBM signed an agreement with Microsoft for the latter to produce a disc operating system for its new desktop model. At this point, IBM might have found Seattle Computer Products and purchased the operating system that Microsoft bought in real life. Alternatively, disillusioned by failed negotiations with outside parties, it may have tried to cobble together its own. As with all of these predictions, our chosen theoretical timeline is highly speculative, as no-one can really know what would have happened. Our alternative history shows that IBM tried harder to negotiate with Digital Research, securing a non-exclusive licence from Kildall.

What of Apple? Why hasn't the company featured more prominently in our alternative history than it did in real life? The company went through something of a slump in market share in the late 1980s and early to mid 1990s, becoming almost a niche model for creative types, but never capturing the same mass-market as the PC. The primary reason for this is that Apple had complete, proprietary control over its system, building both the hardware and the software from scratch. Consequently, it became easy for the firm to shoot itself in the foot, refusing to license the model to clone manufacturers.

Apple's downfall

If it had realised the importance of the PC a little earlier and attempted to spread its net a little wider in the market, sharing some of its profit around, it would have secured a larger market share earlier on. It certainly had the technical resources to do so, with a graphical user interface (GUI) that was intuitive and attractive to use at the same time that viable GUIs such as Gem emerged from the PC market. Still, Apple fumbled the ball at this stage with decisions that have haunted the company ever since. Ironically, Microsoft helped to put it back on its feet with a 1997 investment, and Jobs has worked wonders with the iMac.

Things get complicated very quickly in our parallel Bill-less universe. Companies buy different firms than they did in real life, and it is also worth pointing out that there are many other variables that we simply didn't have room for. The list of questions that we can ask ourselves could more than fill a book. With Microsoft out of the frame, for example, would the position of John Warnock's company Adobe have altered significantly? What about Corel, which in a strange twist of fate sold a significant portion of its equity at the start of this month to Microsoft? Would Linux have gathered so much momentum, given that the industry supported it predominantly as an alternative to what it perceived as a dominant, dangerous company in Microsoft?

Not even the most astute industry analyst can really answer these questions with any accuracy. One of the most defining characteristics of this industry is that small players come from nowhere to rapidly take hold of the market and represent a significant threat to their older, more established competitors. Take Netscape, for example, which was a nothing company run by nobodies until the mid-1990s, when the financial markets suddenly decided that it was hugely important, and gave it a large cash injection, turning it into a significant force.

So, in an industry that moves at an accelerated pace, and in which the opportunity for fast growth is a major driver, it is impossible to see what is coming out of left field. Gates said this himself in an on-stage interview at an IDC conference in Paris in the autumn of 1995, when Netscape and the Internet were just becoming significant forces. Since then, of course, he has displayed the business acumen to survive and prosper in an uncertain market, although the courts have decided that Microsoft has leveraged its existing success in the market to an unfair extent in order to do so.

In spite of the uncertainty inherent in our theoretical timeline, there are some things which we can be pretty sure would not have changed. The framework for the development of the industry is one such static factor. Having seen the importance of the desktop computer, the end-user community would be eager to network them together to exchange information, regardless of whether Microsoft was around or not. Indeed, the company had very little success in the networking market until the mid-1990s anyway.

Similarly, the development of the Web would have happened no matter what. The infrastructure for the Internet existed before Microsoft signed its agreement with IBM, and would have continued to grow. Tim Berners-Lee would have invented the interface to the Internet that generated the World-Wide Web regardless of Microsoft, and the Net would still have become a commercial force.

Finally, the progression from mainframe-oriented connections, through peer-to-peer networking, into client/server and finally to an Internet-oriented computing environment would probably still have happened. Only the players would have altered. With Microsoft experiencing most of its success in the desktop operating system and desktop applications markets, and latterly the application server operating system and server applications market, huge holes would have been left in this area for other companies to exploit.

Likely successors

The only question is, which companies would have succeeded? Novell doesn't seem to have had the wherewithal to combat Microsoft's success with Windows NT as much as it would have liked - and it is likely that it would have needed some help from other players, even if Microsoft was not around. A number of questionable decisions by Novell showed an arguable lack of judgement on the part of the management that we can speculate would have cost the firm market share with or without Microsoft. These include the purchase and subsequent sale of WordPerfect [what was it thinking?] and the sale of the Unix source code to SCO only two years after buying it, thus putting itself behind in the application server game while Microsoft steamed ahead with NT.

Then again, it's all too easy to look at other people's mistakes and poke fun, and even easier to do so with hindsight. When you are embroiled in the tempest that constitutes the day-to-day dynamic of the IT market, it is easy to make poor judgement calls.

One thing that we can say with impunity is that even without Microsoft one or two other players would very likely have risen to the top of the pile, gathering huge market share and displaying dominant tendencies. If it hadn't been Microsoft, it might have been IBM, or Sun, or Hewlett-Packard. But anyone looking for a utopian view of an egalitarian market, free from the tyranny of supplier domination, is whistling in the dark.

The most annoying thing in this industry is the sanctimony with which some companies criticise dominant players such as Microsoft, truly believing that under different circumstances, other players would have been more charitable and less arrogant in their success.

The IT business is all about making money. Success breeds success, unless you wrong-foot yourself and take a fall, letting the competition stride ahead. There are multiple possible outcomes of a Microsoft-free market, but the American-based nature of the IT sector means that government regulation would have been minimal, and someone would have stepped up to take its place very quickly.

History without Bill

  Industry Desktop OS Server OS Applications
1975 MITS launches the Altair computer. Gary Kitdall founds Digital Research to sell the CP/M microcomputer operating system CP/M operating systems available   Altair relies on hobbyist versions of Basic
1976 CP/M Bios developed to interface with different Intel 8080 machines      
1977 Number of different microcomputers proliferates. CP/M gathers market share      
1978 Apple launches Apple II      
1979 Apple passes on buying Visicalc. Wordstar produced. WordPerfect formed     Dan Bricklin produces Viscicalc, the first spreadsheet, for Apple II
1980 IBM starts work on the PC with a one-year deadline. IBM licences CP/M for the machine.Lotus is formed      
1982 PC launched as rival to Apple II. Compaq starts selling PC's after reverse engineering the IBM Bios. Licenses CP/M for the machine. Lotus is formed.     WordPerfect 1.0 introduced
1983 Apple introduces the Lisa, its first GUI machine. Digital Research launches the Gem GUI. Visicorp launches its VisiOn GUI Novell gives up on desktop hardware, concentrates on producing network OS software, but the company is unable to deliver. IBM licenses Novell's Netware  
1984 Apple introduces the Lisa, its first GUI machine. IBM launches the PC-AT. Apple launches the Mac IBM announces Topview, its own GUI   Lotus announces Jazz suite for the Macintosh
1985   IBM ships Topview Novell launches Netware 2.0  
1986 Compaq ships the 386 PC, beating IBM to market Digital Research launches Gem 2.0, sitting on top of CP/M    
1987 IBM launches the PS/2 using the proprietary Micro Channel Architecture. Compaq and others unite against it. Digital Research, having missed the boat in the applications market, buys Lotus IBM is worried about its lack of presence in the PC market. Launches OS/2 v1.0, an IBM-only development with proprietary code and a revamped Topview on top.   Lotus ships Jazz for Gem
1988   IBM announces OS/2 Lan, a network version of OS/2 that is essentially Netware underneath, with Topview on top    
1989 IBM, distraught at its loss of control in the PC market, stays in the market but decides to concentrate on servers. It purchases Novell Digital Research launches Gem 3.0   Lotus Launches Notes
1990   Desktop OS/2 rapidly losing market share    
1991   Digital Research ships CP/M 5.0    
1992       WordPerfect launches WordPerfect for Gem
1993   Digital Research ships CP/M 6.0 IBM announces OS/2 Lan 2.0. Unlike its file-and-print predecessor, the new operating system features application server functionality, targeting it squarely at the various flavours of Unix WordPerfect launches Skylark, a groupware and messenging product
1994     Unix versions from companies including Sun, HP and SCO still holding their own against OS/2 Lan  
1995 Everyone licenses Java from Sun. IBM/Novell purchases WordPerfect, primarily for Skylark, Sun and Oracle launch their network computer concept Digital Research ships Gem New Edition, a merged CP/M and Gem system, with multimedia extensions    
1996 Browser supplier Netgrope, still with $3bn capital from IPO, buys Digital Research. Sets up an applications division. Sets up its own network computer division, in opposition to Sun and Oracle   IBM launches OS/2 Lan 3.0. Fed up with all the numbers, it renames it Zeus  
1997 Aplle making losses and losong its limited market share rapidly. Company brings Steve JObs back as interim CEO. Jobs gain investment from Oracle and Sun who are worried about Netgrope's hold on the desktop market, and launches iMAc Open Source small-footprint OS Flummox gains market attention. Analyist rave about possibilities for the PDA market Netgrope launches Grope 97, a competitor to Zues. Product fails to ignite market Wordperfect 7.0 for Gem NE launched
1998   Netgrope ships the next version of Gem NE, renames it Firefly. The new system is heavily Internet-oriented. Includes the Netgrope browser as an integrated facility. Flummox-based PDAs and smart phone prototypes appear Zeus 2.0 launched  
1999 DoJ files lawsuit against Netgrope for what it says are uncompetitive practices in teh PC market. Alleges that the company is leveraging its success in the OS market to sell its original browser product Flummox-based products appear on the market. Netgrope launches Firefly Lite, also for the embedded systems market. It includes a small-footprint browser   Netgrope launches a version of Wordperfect NE for the as-yet unproven application service provider market
2000 Court faces Netgrope to ship its browser separately to Firefly OS. All network computing players pronounce the transformation of the largely ignored network computing market into the corporate ASP market Firefly New Edition launched - sans browser. Firefly Lite 1.5 launched in browserless form Zeus 2000 takes the market by storm. Attacks mission-critical market preveiously addressed by Unix Wordperfect 8.0 for Gem NE launched. The product has a 90% share of the word processor market

History with Bill

  Industry Microsoft Corporation Desktop OS Server OS Applications
1975 MITS launches the Altair computer, Gary Kildail starts Digital Reasearch to sell CP/M Microsoft formed CP/M operating system available   Bill Gates and Paul Allen write Basic for Altair
1976 CP/M Bios developed to interface with different Intel 8080 machines       Microsoft revamps its version of Basic
1977 Microcomputers proliferate. CP/M gathers market share Microsoft sells a Basic licence to Apple      
1978 Apple launches Apple II       Microsoft launches Cobal
1979 Apple passes on buying Visicalc. Wordstar and Wordperfect started       Dan Bricklin produces Visicalc for Apple II
1980 IBM starts work on the PC with a one year deadline Microsoft buy s Qdos and renames it MSDos. IBM buys licence to bundle with PC and agrees to licensing the OS to other makers. Microsoft agrees to produce versions of Basic, Fortran, PAscal and Cobal for the PC   Microsoft licenses Unix and begins work on Xenix, the PC version  
1982 PC launched as rival to Apple II. Compaq starts selling PC's after reverse enginnering IBM Bios. Lotus is formed       Wordperfect 1.0 introduced
1983 Apple introduces the Lisa, its first GUI machine   Microsoft unveils Windows, ships MSDos 2.0 for IBM's PC-XT. Digital Research and Visicorp launch graphical interfaces Novell gives up desktop hardware for network OS software. IBM asks Microsoft to work on network software. MS tries to build it on Dos Microsoft ships Word. Lotus launches 123 for the PC
1984 IBM launches the PC-AT. Apple launches the Mac   IBM announces own GUI Topview. Microsoft ships MSDos 3.0 for IBM's PC-AT   Lotus announces Jazz suite for the Macintosh
1985     Microsoft launches Windows. IBM ships Topview Microsoft launches network software MSNet. Novell unveils Netware 2.0 Microsoft ships Word 2.0
1986 Compaq ships the 386 PC, beating IBM to market Microsoft stock goes public, at $21 per share     Microsoft announces Works (its low-end office suite) and Word 3.0 for the Mac
1987 IBM launches PS/2 using the proprietary Micro Channel Architecture. Rivals unite against it Microsoft buys Forethought, which publishes Powerpoint for the Mac IBM/Microsoft developed OS/2 v1.0 for the PS/2 launched. Microsoft ships Windows 2.0 and Windows 386   Microsoft ships Excel, Word 4.0 for the PC, and Word 3.0 for the Mac
1988       Microsoft ships OS/2 Lan Manager for Networks Microsoft ships PC Works
1989 IBM announces its networked office automation system Officevision       Lotus launches Notes
1990   Microsoft and IBM split over OS/2 - Big Blue gets to keep versions 1 and 2 while MS develops version 3 Microsoft unveils Windows 3.0. IBM launches OS/2 Lite   Microsoft launches Word for Windows and the Office suite
1991 Kildall sells Digital Reasearch to Novell   Microsoft ships MSDos 5.0    
1992     Microsoft ships Windows 3.1   WordPerfect launches Wordperfect for Windows
1993 Novell buys WordPerfect   Microsoft ships MSDos 6.0 Microsoft ships Windows NT Microsoft ships Office 4.0
1994   Microsoft loses Stac Electronics' lawsuit over disc compression technology. MS recalls Dos 6.0 and replaces the OS      
1995 IBM buys Lotus Microsoft licenses Java from Sun Microsoft ships Windows 95   Microsoft announces Internet Explorer
1996 Caldera formed by ex-Novell CEO Ray Noorda buys CP/M Microsoft announces its ActiveX technology as an open standard. Caldera sues Microsoft for illegal MSDos activities      
1997 Apple suffers losses and loses market share rapidly. Steve Jobs returns as interim CEO and gains $150m investment from Microsoft, launches iMac Sun sues Microsoft for breach of copwright and contract, saying the MS tampered with the technology   Microsoft ships NT 4.0  
1998   Sun sues Microsoft for breah of copwright and contract, saying the MS tampered with the technology DoJ and 21 states file lawsuit accusing Microsoft of predatory conduct, tying the browser to the operating system, and signing exclusionary agreement Microsoft ships Windows 98    
2000   Court rules that Microsoft to be split into an applications software firm, and an operating supplier and to restrict MS's influence over OEM partners. Supreme courts agrees to hear appeal. I Sun lawsuit, court says Microsoft did not break copyright over Java. Other breach-of-contract issues pending - settles out of court with Caldera Microsoft shisp the Windows 2000 desktop operating system and the Windows ME consumer operating system Microsoft shis the Windows 2000 server operating system. Microsoft unveils SOAP technology. It also announces .net initiative  


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This was first published in October 2000

 

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