Column: Gates's Road Ahead looks like back alley

It was on a hot summer day six months or so ago that managing editor Don Hill wafted into the Computerworld newsroom bearing aloft a copy of Bill Gates's book.

"Who'd like to read this one?" he asked naively as junket-crazed journos sank down behind their VDUs and somnolent subs doggedly refused to catch his eye.

A moment of intense silence, mild embarrassment and all-round discomfort followed this seemingly innocent enquiry. Then, finally, the one person who couldn't escape without physically leaping the barrier into someone else's workstation spoke up.

"Ah, I wouldn't mind having a crack at that, Don," I said.

Such was the enthusiasm the publication of Gates's book generated in our office.

Six months later, the said volume was still mocking me from my bookshelf. "Dammit," I thought. "There's only one way out of this hell."

Reading The Road Ahead six months down the track from publication is an interesting test of Gates's visionary credentials. This is Gates as cybertech guru. He describes the book as "a travel guide for the forthcoming journey" and, as such, it should stand the test of time to some considerable extent. But reading it now only serves to emphasise how quickly things change in the IT industry and how constrained Gates's vision really is.

Gates the cyber guru is very much a company man. He can't fire off ideas freely because of his massive vested interests in the eventual outcome. His vision is a PC-centric one in which new applications--of the sort his company makes and markets--will change our lives. "The PC," he says, "is the foundation of the next revolution."

When Gates talks of PCs he is talking, of course, about fat clients--machines with big memories and high power to run his company's big applications. The possibility of a thin-client future is nowhere to be seen.

Gates's visions are often pretty wacky, not because they are unfeasible but because they seem at variance with human nature. At one point he describes someone planning to eat out, how they would check out the menu, winelist and specials of a restaurant online before going to it. How they would check its health department rating; the safety of the neighbourhood it is situated in and so forth.

A vision of the future? I hope not.

Similarly, Gates spends a lot of time talking about the information superhighway, a term that went out of date so quickly it must have taken his publishers, and possibly himself, by surprise. For every time the Internet gets a mention the "highway" gets 20.

It is in the area of the Internet that Gates's vision lets him down badly. He missed the bus totally and has spent the past six months trying to catch up. Gates has in the past transformed Microsoft from an applications company into a networking company and he could well succeed in transforming it again into an Internet company. But if this does happen it won't be because of a powerful vision but because of massive investment, aggressive competition and Microsoft's ability to bundle applications with its operating systems to cut competition out of the market.

Shortly after the publication of this book, of course, Gates performed his now famous about-face and created an Internet division at Microsoft, having earlier insisted that would never happen. Since then Microsoft's browser, Internet Explorer, has gone from nowhere in the market to taking a 7% share.

As John Seabrook pointed out in the New Yorker shortly after this book's publication, it is Gates's obsession with the PC that could be his undoing. The network could conceivably displace the PC. And Internet software is already starting to show its versatility with intranets offering a viable alternative to groupware, such as Microsoft's Exchange, in some situations.

And as for another of Gates's visions, that of "softer" software, well, Sun seems to have stolen the march there.

"It is unlikely," says Seabrook, "that in the future we will ever see a lone highway man with the pervasive influence of Gates. the leaders of the next phase may not even come from the computer industry. They are likely to be people who understand that this new world is fundamentally not about technology."

The computer, far from being the beloved machine of Gates and millions of others, could descend to the status of any other tool. It will do the job--full stop.

The best parts of The Road Ahead are the personal recollections and musings on the growth of the PC industry and of Microsoft--the historical parts rather than the futuristic ones.

Now, to be fair, Gates does acknowledge that he is setting himself up for a fall by even putting pen to paper. "This is meant to be a serious book," he writes, "although 10 years from now it may not appear that way."

But I don't think he ever expected his book to start looking somewhat less than serious only a few months after its publication.

(O'Neill is a Computerworld sub-editor, contactable by email at rob_oneill@idg.com.)

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