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Where Does Microsoft Want To Go Today?

In May 30th, 2007, Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg interviewed Bill Gates and Steve Jobs in a now widely cited D5 conference panel. At the beginning of that session, both were asked about what they thought was the greatest contribution the other made to the computer industry. Speaking about Bill Gates, Steve Jobs said:

Well, you know, Bill built the first software company in the industry and I think he built the first software company before anybody really in our industry knew what a software company was, except for these guys.

A software company. Does that short phrase still describe the Microsoft of today?

A quick search of the word “Microsoft” in this publication brings around 40 articles: yes, around one third of all articles in the website you are reading right now mention the company in one way or another. But they have not always been this relevant in the industry.

Actually, it is fair to say they spent at least the first five years of their history in a relative obscurity. The first appearance of the name “Microsoft” on the pages of Byte Magazine was a short mention to their BASIC interpreter in an advertising of Ohio Scientific Instruments in page 47 of the May 1977 issue. In sharp contrast, page 34 of the very same issue includes a complete description of the Apple II by Steve Wozniak himself. The Woz and Gary Kildall were undoubtedly the biggest stars of the burgeoning hobbyist microcomputer industry at the end of the 1970s.

To add insult to injury, the December 1975 issue of the same Byte Magazine, dedicated to the MITS Altair 8800, contains an opinion piece mentioning a “proprietary software product (BASIC) aimed directly at the microcomputer hobbyists”. Of course, that was precisely Microsoft’s first product; but Chris Ryland, the author of the article, did not even mention them, as MITS was distributing it under a license.

Interestingly enough, Mr. Ryland’s article title was “The Software Vacuum”. In hindsight, one could easily think that Microsoft set themselves to fill that software vacuum, come what may.

It was not until Microsoft struck a deal with IBM in November 1980, leading to the release of the first IBM PC, that their name started becoming ubiquitous in this industry. Since that point on, the company has evolved in three major cycles, each corresponding to the person at its helm.

The first cycle, led by Microsoft’s first CEO and founder, Bill Gates, was characterized by some famed memos and initiatives: “Information at your Fingertips” in 1990 (in a video where he looks like Max Headroom); “The Internet Tidal Wave” in 1995 (where he corrected the mistake of barely mentioning the Internet in his book “The Road Ahead”); and “Trustworthy Computing” in 2002 (described in detail by Graham in this month’s Library article). Those were a times where a tasteless Microsoft asked the Rolling Stones to add some music to a wildly successful product launch.

Bill Gates also made famous appearances on stage, for example demoing important Windows 98 features, or being booed by Apple enthusiasts even though he literally saved Apple from a near death experience–simultaneously bringing some positive karma to his own sorry company, during the heated Congress antitrust hearings being held at the time, that is.

The second cycle, led by Steve Ballmer, is mostly remembered by blunders and his unmoderated love for the word “developer”. Joel Spolsky quickly realized in 2005 how far Microsoft had fallen behind Google:

The very fact that Google invented MapReduce, and Microsoft didn’t, says something about why Microsoft is still playing catch up trying to get basic search features to work, while Google has moved on to the next problem: building Skynet^H^H^H^H^H^H the world’s largest massively parallel supercomputer. I don’t think Microsoft completely understands just how far behind they are on that wave.

However dire the situation was, the same Spolsky was the first to acknowledge in 2004 that

Microsoft has an incredible amount of cash money in the bank and is still incredibly profitable. It has a long way to fall. It could do everything wrong for a decade before it started to be in remote danger, and you never know… they could reinvent themselves as a shaved-ice company at the last minute.

And the company did almost everything wrong for literally a whole decade. Laughing about the iPhone and then regretting that laugh seven years later to Charlie Rose did not help Windows Phone to survive. At least they did not miss on the cloud train, something that IBM did. It was the time of the Mini-Microsoft blog, written by a still anonymous insider. Those were the years of “Linux is Cancer” with Microsoft throwing fuel at the SCO-Linux dispute with an infamous “Get the Facts” advertising campaign. That was the age of Internet Explorer 6 bringing the web to a standstill for a decade.

The third cycle is the one we are witnessing as this article hits the press, with Satya Nadella in charge. The age of Microsoft buying GitHub and npm. The moment of TypeScript eating JavaScript for breakfast. The time of SQL Server on Linux. The years of Visual Studio Code becoming a de-facto standard.

It is also the moment of Microsoft being a member of literally every single software foundation you can think of. Let us now enumerate them, shall we, so that we all understand the level of change. In 2016 they shocked pretty much everyone by joining the Linux Foundation and its many related bodies: the CNCF, OpenChain, Hyperledger, OpenJS, and just a few months ago, the eBPF Foundation.

Nowadays Microsoft sponsors both the Apache Foundation and the Python Software Foundation. It is also a full member of the Unicode Consortium, the ISO C++ Committee, the Rust Foundation, the MariaDB Foundation, the Eclipse Foundation, the Open Source Security Foundation, the W3C, the Bytecode Alliance for WebAssembly, the Blender Development Fund, the R Consortium, the Academy Software Foundation… and the F# Foundation. Well this last one was kind of obvious, I give you that.

As the adage says, if you cannot beat them, join them. Or maybe is this just a new chapter of their traditional embrace, extend, and extinguish strategy? Only time will tell.

In the aforementioned 2007 panel that opens this article, Steve Jobs also said about Bill Gates:

I think the world’s a better place because Bill realized that his goal isn’t to be the richest guy in the cemetery, right?

Thanks to Bill Gates, and his newly found retirement hobby of saving the world, Microsoft owns 24 million shares of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and is even a member of the Climate Finance Foundation, whatever that is.

The one tradition that remained constant throughout all of Microsoft’s history is their infatuation for the BASIC programming language, through its various declinations: the already mentioned Altair BASIC, Microsoft BASIC, GW-BASIC, MBASIC, MSX BASIC, Commodore BASIC, QuickBASIC, QBasic, the “classic” Visual Basic, VBA, VBScript, VB.NET, and finally Small Basic; the latter available either on your Surface laptop or, even more 21st century-like, on Azure and best viewed through the Microsoft Edge browser.

Cover photo by Pedro Santos on Unsplash.

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