Bill Gates on Innovation

    December 7, 2007

Bill Gates met with some bloggers Tuesday, and Jonathan Snook decided to go at him with the age-old question about whether Microsoft is an innovator, or a bullying copycat.

Gates proved that underneath the ill-fitting shirts and the underwhelming stage presence lies a strong debater who can disarm even the toughest of questions with facts and humor.

To quote a bit from the transcript, Gates is told by Snook that he feels Microsoft has always been reactionary. Gates’ response is brilliant:

Especially when we started the company. (Laughter.) I knew that three years later, Apple would come along. It was [just a reaction]. (Laughter.)

There are bits the transcriber had trouble picking up. They’re in brackets.

Gates response is completely disarming, and funny too. Snook responds by asking about Word being reactionary to WordPerfect, and Gates goes:

When do you think Microsoft did its first word processor, just out of curiosity?

Gates says that Microsoft has little 8080 word processors, and that ultimately Charles Simone built the first bitmap graphics word processor at Xerox PARC, and he started Microsoft Word (or Microsoft Multi-Tool Word), so there was no reactionary movement, just coders doing what they do.

He makes the more important point that Microsoft didn’t beat WordPerfect by copying them, they won by betting heavily on the graphical user interface while WordPerfect bet against it, a costly losing bet.

Bill then asks who else is doing tablet computers? Who is doing IPTV? He explains that Microsoft is so big, everything it does becomes the baseline, so by definition that means only what everyone else does is innovative.

Anyway, tablet computers, is there somebody else out there doing tablet computers? IPTV, is there somebody else out there doing — by definition what we do is the baseline. Everything Microsoft does is the baseline, and what we don’t do, that’s what’s innovative I guess. (Laughter.) And by that definition the other guys do all the innovative things.

It’s not an airtight argument, but it’s a better way of looking at it than some defenders of Microsoft have tried using. Bill does make the good argument that the winners in tech are rarely the ones who come up with the new idea, but rather the ones who bring it to market properly.

Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, it just brought it mainstream. Microsoft didn’t invent the graphical OS, it just brought forward the first one compatible with everyone’s old software. YouTube didn’t invent internet video, it was just the first one to package it with an easy embeddable player and a great community. The winners aren’t the ones who do something first, but the ones who did it right for the market and the users.

It’s a lesson we should all remember as we try to make a difference in the world.