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Last man standing

Last man standing

Having returned from summer with certain expectations, Matthew JC. Powell is derailed by other people's agendasIhave to admit, gentle readers, that I am a little dumbstruck this week. Over the holidays, I thought about what topics would make for good columns to share with the reseller community, and the Y2K changeover obviously provided some easy fuel. I came back brimming with ideas - some good, some bad, but at least it was a plan.

I reasoned, as I'm sure many of you often do, that my life would be easier if I had a clear strategy for what I would do over at least the first couple of months of the year. What I had forgotten is that this industry changes too damn fast to go forging strategies of this kind. Not that there is no value in long-term planning, but imagining that such a strategy can stand in an ever-changing context is like trying to change the course of mighty rivers or bend steel with your bare hands. Unless you're a strange visitor from another planet with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, it just is not going to happen.

The particular bit of kryptonite that's put the kibosh on my well-constructed plan is of course the departure of Bill Gates from the CEO job at Microsoft. Now, I wouldn't want to overstate the significance of this turn of events, or make Gates seem more important than he is, but essentially this changes everything. To extend the `mighty river' metaphor, Gates is like a big old chunk of granite that's been there for centuries causing the river to take a twist to the left, and now he's sort of shifted. He's not gone, exactly, but he looks moveable, and the river can get around behind him.

Offhand, I can think of very few companies from the personal computer revolution whose founders are still the CEO. John Warnock at Adobe leaps to mind, but that's about it. Steve Jobs' non-consecutive terms at Apple don't really count in this argument. I suppose you're expecting me to make some observation about the fact that Gates left the CEO job he's held for 25 years only days after Jobs officially returned to the CEO job at Apple. But I'd only really do that if I were about 30 or so words short.

Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yes, in an industry where revolution is the norm, and where a successful CEO who's made billionaires out of shareholders can be sacked in a heartbeat if things go a little bit sour, Gates has been an improbable symbol of stability. He's one of a very small group of computer industry executives so strongly identified with their companies and their products that they have become genuinely famous. When Andy Grove was Time's Man of the Year, the mag spent a page or two explaining to its audience who he was exactly. Gates appears on magazine covers regularly, often with no identifying caption - it isn't deemed necessary.

But as well as being a symbol of stability, Gates has also become the icon for all that people don't like about Microsoft's business practices. Big companies do nasty things all the time. It's in the nature of very large corporations to do so, and I don't believe that the Redmondian software behemoth has yet entered the pantheon of evil with Union Carbide, Exxon or Philip Morris. But none of these demonic blemishes to humanity has a smiling, bespectacled face for the people to despise.

The Government is now deliberating upon the question of how it will `remedy' Microsoft's wicked ways. You will find on the Net many suggestions from legal experts, columnists and `regular folks' as to what should be done. Most of these suggestions are directed at Gates personally (boiled in oil, tarred and feathered, forced to give up inner-circle Illuminati seat) rather than at his company. Clearly any punishment the DoJ hands down that is fair to Microsoft will not satisfy the people's bloodlust against Gates. My money is on that, rather than `a desire to take a more hands-on role in developing the company's future software products' as the reason for his departure. The people don't hate Steve Ballmer - yet.

On a side note, I noticed when writing the third paragraph of this column that the phrase `this changes' was highlighted by Word's grammar checker (an almost useless bit of software but often good for a laugh).

When I consulted with it to find what the problem was, it informed me that the correct form was either `these changes' or `this change'. I was immediately struck by a desire to write to Microsoft and tell them that `change' can also be a verb - it's something you do. But then, I guess they've already figured that out.

Matthew JC. Powell couldn't think up a good pun on Bill Gates' name for the headline. Contact him on matthew_powell@idg.com.au


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