Will Google give Bill a dose of the birthday blues?

It sounds like the punch line to an old joke: what do you get the man who can buy (almost) anything? For some though, it was an issue they had to address last month as William Henry Gates III — Bill, as he is better known — celebrated his 50th birthday.

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By  Peter Branton Published  November 6, 2005

|~|commentcakebody.jpg|~|Bill Gates celebrated his 50th birthday last month.|~|It sounds like the punch line to an old joke: what do you get the man who can buy (almost) anything? For some though, it was an issue they had to address last month as William Henry Gates III — Bill, as he is better known — celebrated his 50th birthday. While Gates was here in the Middle East just before his birthday (see page 5) the big day was celebrated at a lavish shin-dig at Seattle’s baseball stadium, where 16,000 Microsoft employees gathered to pay their respects. Considering he has probably helped to make a fair few of them millionaires (through stock options), those respects were most likely gladly given, as well. While Gates hitting the half-century mark may be significant for him and his friends and family, a possibly more important celebration was that of the company he founded: Microsoft itself has turned 30 this year. In 1975, Gates and friend Paul Allen founded a firm called Micro-Soft in Alburquerque, New Mexico. The rest, as the saying goes, is history… What is interesting commentators now is not so much what has happened to Microsoft in the past, as what does the future hold for the software giant? Gates himself has been in proselytising mood. In a speech in London last month, he spoke of how much has been achieved in technology and how much more remains to be done. “Thirty years ago, I was 19 years old and dreamed about the idea of a personal computer on every desk in every home,” Gates said. “We have come a long way towards achieving that. We don’t have six billion PCs but we’ve got more than a billion. They’re not quite as easy to use as I dreamed at that time, but we’re getting close. Over this next decade we’ll have achieved everything we had in mind at that time.” The vision of the future according to Gates — and by extension, Microsoft — is one where shoppers can access all pricing data at the press of a button, where students will be able to access all the information they need on their textbooks on a single device, and where we all have data readily to hand in mobile devices. The future sounds bright in Gates’ vision, but perhaps the key question is where will Microsoft fit in to it? Since its coup of landing the contract to provide IBM with an operating system for the new PC — launched in 1981 — Microsoft has largely been able to keep at or near the front rank of technology innovators. It has had the occasional blip of course — in the 1990s, Gates famously underestimated the impact of the internet and the web — but in general, Microsoft has been up there as the top tech firm. That position is now arguably under greater threat than ever before. While the 1990s saw the firm successfully move its software into the enterprise market with server versions of its Windows operating system, the growth of Linux and open source alternatives now threatens that market. While Linux sales are steadily growing, the mere threat that an organisation is considering its usage seems to be enough to persuade Microsoft salesmen to reduce their offer: and hence Microsoft’s profits. And while Microsoft is keen to get into the consumer electronics and entertainment markets, it is still finding it hard to make an impression here. Apple, once vanquished in the desktop OS space, has cleaned up in the digital music market with its iPod and iTunes products. But perhaps the biggest threat though comes from Google: the search engine giant that promises to deliver that easy access to information. And perhaps one indicator of Microsoft’s problems would be that the information above about Gates’ birthday celebrations was found using Google’s search tools. ||**||

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