Bye Bye Bill

Even if you don’t much like Bill Gates, you can’t deny the influence he has had on the world of computers. As such, his decision to change his focus from his work at Microsoft to his charity work merited a special, hour long edition of The Money Programme, shown last night, looking back at his time at Microsoft, and forward to what is to come.

Programmes about Bill Gates have a chequered past. Often in order to get an agreement to interview the man, there appear to be so many restrictions that the final programmes appear to be pulling their punches, and largely become an advert for the man and the company. The Money Programme had apparently negotiated long and hard to get the interview, as such it certainly was a friendly interview. However, it did seem that they had got some flexibility this time around, as unlike some interviews in the past there were some questions over past events that sometimes get avoided – the multiple court cases being a key example – needless to say Bill Gates feels that the company acted properly and that it was their treatment by the various governments that was wrong rather than what his company did to rivals such as Netscape, but questions were asked none the less.

The programme also featured some critical voices, putting the other side. In particular Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Software and chair of the Mozilla Foundation, both organisations that have been in competition with Microsoft over the years. Mitch is pretty clear what he thinks of some of the tactics, in particular the advantages that Microsoft gained over his company by writing software for an operating system that they also produced. It didn’t go into that much detail, but the contrary point was able to be made.

We also got some glimpses of the man at work, showing Bill reviewing projects, and comparing that with older footage, indicating that perhaps Bill has mellowed somewhat in the way that he reviews – somewhat quieter and with rather less shouting! The picture it painted of the company was interesting, with the presenter commenting on how much of a focus Bill Gates is within the organisation, and posing the question of how things might be different. We also heard from some of the early staff at the company, and even a contribution from Sir Alan Sugar talking about Amstrad entering the PC market and negotiating with Microsoft. They even had a contribution from IBM, and whether their decision to allow Microsoft to separately license the OS for their machine to other companies was a good or a bad move.

The programme didn’t limit itself to business views. Bill Gates senior appears. Decidedly unhappy when his son dropped out of university to write software, eschewing a good career as a lawyer, he is rather happier about it now, and assists his son with his philanthropy. We even get to see the school where Bill started writing software on punched cards – although amusingly one shot of a class full of laptop using students at the school had one right in the centre with a Mac…

By virtue of the fact that Gates approval was needed, this was never going to be a massively probing interview – certainly being the Gates version of history the infamous dismissal of the rise of the internet as a serious event followed by a swift turnaround, was re-crafted as Gates sending an e-mail to all staff announcing a change of focus in the company, without mentioning the major rewrites that were made to Gates book The Road Ahead.

Talking about the road ahead, the programme comes right up to date looking at competition with Google, and the ill-fated attempt to take over Yahoo.

For those in the UK the programme is available for the next week on iPlayer, for those outside, there is a bit of the footage on the BBC News site. If you missed it, even for the flaws, it’s still an entertaining insight, and well worth a look.

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