Trey*: I am not really a bad man...

June 17, 2006

In his monumental work East of Eden (which many rank above the Nobel Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath), the late American writer John Steinbeck poses the question: What is the world's story about? He believes there is just one story - the constant battle between good and evil. "A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have only the hard, clean questions: was it good or was it evil? Have I done well or ill?"

Steinbeck cites the case of a man who clawed his way to the top by ruining many people, building his fortune on the backs of others whom he trampled underfoot. He spent most of the rest of his life trying to buy back the trust and love of people whom he had ruined. In the process he more than balanced the evil he had done. But when this man died, nearly everyone greeted the news with pleasure. Several people said, "Thank God, that son of a bitch is dead."

For many people, that period when they put this question to themselves comes in the latter half of their lives, when they approach or cross 50. This applies in particular to public figures who have done much damage to the public and would like to rewrite history.

Some leave the question until later - Richard Milhous Nixon tried to characterise his actions as benevolent by writing a book about Vietnam when he was in the grips of disease. It was not difficult to find a falsehood in every paragraph.

Another of the Vietnam war scoundrels, Robert McNamara, did likewise - he went one better by writing a book and also allowing a film to be made in which he tried to cast himself as the man who had no choice.

The problem is compounded by the fourth estate who, true to form, generally do everything but canonise such people, most of them politicians who can only be described as scum when one is in a charitable mood.

Witness the case of Ariel Sharon, the butcher of Sabra and Shattila. The moment he became aware of his own fallibility and began making statements that he hoped would paint him as a moderate (???), the media went all ga-ga over the man. That he then suffered a stroke which has left him in a vegetative state ensured that no ill would be spoken about him.

Nobody wants to be remembered as a thug or a crook, no matter if they have robbed and pillaged all their lives and built an enormous fortune on the backs of millions who have been ruined in the process. Not even Bill Gates.

The Microsoft co-founder's (the other founder is the technically gifted Paul Allen) announcement that he would step down from direct involvement with his computer software company and concentrate on his "philanthropic" foundation has resulted in the predictable - nobody likes to point out that this is just another case of a bandit trying to paint a halo round his locks as he enters the second half of his life.

In 1975, software was not considered the property of any individual. Everybody shared their creations with the other. Not Gates. After he and Allen put together a version of the BASIC programming language based on the original which had been created by Kemeny and Kurtz (Dartmouth BASIC), he began screaming "piracy" every time someone else used his version. He and Allen had borrowed much from the public domain but when it came to other people using his version, it wasn't fair.

Gates's story is far from that of a boy wonder who went from rags to riches -  he is the son of an extremely wealthy Seattle lawyer whose mother was a director of a huge charity connected to several IBM executives at the time when it was looking for an operating system for its personal computer.

Thus it was not surprising that IBM agreed to talk to Microsoft. The company which owned no operating system bought one from Tim Paterson of Seattle Computers for $US50,000, renamed it from Q-DOS (quick and dirty operating system) to MS-DOS, and then licensed it to IBM. Paterson himself had plagiarised most of his O-S from CP/M-86 which had been written by Gary Kildall of Digital Research. Kildall, a genius of sorts, did not bother to sue.

IBM first went to meet Kildall but he was away, flying his private jet and missed out on being considered for supplying the operating system which IBM was seeking. Some say Kildall was not considered because he was having an affair with the wife of an IBM executive; IBM is conservatism itself and this did not sit well with management, especially back in the 1980s.

Gates used every trick in the book to ensure that MS-DOS stayed the default platform for every computer that was built  thereafter; operating system and application strategy was coordinated to entrap every manufacturer though Microsoft will never admit doing so.

When Gates could not use dodgy business tactics to defeat rivals he used other tricks to do so. With Netscape Navigator, it was done by making a vastly inferior browser, Internet Explorer, part of the operating system itself so that it could not be removed.

Microsoft has used code from innumerable projects and when caught often settles out of court. In some cases, Microsoft is brazen enough to appeal against such judgements though in the end it ends up paying more. Microsoft has been convicted of monopoly practices and is fighting a case in the EU even now.

In fact, Microsoft is the only software company to be convicted of piracy - it paid a three million French franc fine for stealing code. In 1994, the Commercial Court of Nanterre fined Microsoft because it had illegally included another company's proprietary source code in SoftImage 3D, a top-level animation package that it acquired from SoftImage in 1994.

Through the foundation he set up, Gates has given away a lot of money - but most of it is in the form of software and hardware. In other words more and more copies of Windows to extend his hegemony. Some day, those computers will have to be upgraded - and then paid versions of Windows will be needed. Charity, did someone say?

Due to the shoddy practices, Windows has been haunted all its life by poor security and poor performance. In a world where many others did not stoop so low as he did, Gates has succeeded in accumulating a huge fortune. In terms of money, he has made it. In terms of software, he has little respect from his peers.

When a man of his prominence gets older, the question of the legacy he leaves tends to become a source of bother to him. And so Gates has gone the way of Nixon, Mcnamara and Sharon - he now wants to put a halo round his balding head.

*William Gates III was known as Trey during his college days due to his fondness for poker.