Wishing Microsoft a Happy 25th

Is 25 “old”? It depends. For cars, 25 years brings classic status. For all but the most carefree people, 25 means true adulthood. And for a high-technology super company like Microsoft? Well, surviving and thriving to age 25 is cause for celebration. Take a deep bow, Gates and company. You’ve earned it.

Microsoft passes the quarter-century mark under an ominous cloud of uncertainty. By the time 30 — or even 26 — rolls around, the company might look very different. Earlier this year, the Justice Department succeeded in characterizing the high-tech bellwether as a monopolistic bully, and now it seems that every other person in the high-tech world is stepping up to kick the company in its time of distress.

But this is supposed to be a birthday party, and every e-commerce entrepreneur, software engineer and fledgling Web surfer should go to Redmond, Washington bearing gifts. Even if it hurts, everyone should smile and say “thanks.”

In the Beginning

Think about it. In any other circumstances, the story of an unkempt kid dropping out of Harvard to found the most important company in a quarter century — a company that would hold the market-capitalization crown for years and foster widespread computer use, paving the way for the Internet — would make a can’t-miss Hollywood screenplay.

But this is Bill Gates and Microsoft, and the high-tech world is not as neat and clean, or as simple, as a Hollywood movie with a happy ending. So to get to where the company is today — with enough employees to nearly fill Seattle’s Safeco Field on the occasion of its 25th birthday party — Microsoft had to be aggressive, even predatory.

Seriously, Folks

Gates and his co-founders were dreamers. They saw a future filled with personal computers. Every office worker in the world would have a desk with a machine sitting on top and all of them would be running Microsoft software. Unrealistic? It undoubtedly seemed that way at the time to people with less vision than Gates.

But that dream became reality, and the Digital Age became a Golden Age.

As Gates himself put it during the big birthday bash, “We knew that there was going to be a large software industry, and we evangelized to make that happen.” Interesting words. Gates is often seen as a preacher — by some, a god — but that aura hasn’t always helped him or his company. (The word “arrogant” is often bandied about.)

However, Microsoft did not become the biggest fish in the pond by sitting around and letting food swim into its mouth. The reason Gates and company climbed so high was that they worked so hard. Microsoft developed product after product — and yes, the company did strive to blend its desktop, operating system and Internet browser so closely as to make them inseparable, leading to its present antitrust woes.

A High-Tech Vacuum?

Imagine what life would be like today without Microsoft. It’s inconceivable that we would still be working in BASIC, but would personal computers and enterprise networks have come so far? Not by a long shot. Not without Gates’ very particular genius.

Despite all the advances Microsoft brought to the tech world, the company lost its veneer of invincibility a long, long time ago. Now, the software titan is engaged in a struggle for survival. Forget the Justice Department — there is a much more dire question confronting Microsoft: Will proprietary software remain the basis for computer technology during the next 25 years?

Everyone has gone to the Internet, and Microsoft needs to join that migration. The company’s .NET effort, which will make all Microsoft applications available on the Web, is supporting that move, as is each component of the company’s sprawling Internet empire — from WebTV to MSN (the Microsoft Network).

Looking Back

Regardless of what happens next, however, Microsoft has already accomplished an amazing feat. Gates and company have transformed software development from the strange hobby of geeky long-haired hacker kids into the big business of high-flying corporate executives. Microsoft has made millionaires of thousands — maybe millions — of people: code-writers, entrepreneurs, investors, and advertisers.

Microsoft is not flawless. But history will put the problems the company has encountered into the proper perspective. No accounting of the 1975 to 2000 time frame can be written — cultural, economic or otherwise — without mentioning the software company that changed the world.

What do you give a company with a $369 billion (US$) market cap for its 25th birthday? Nothing. Microsoft already has it all. But for those who find it difficult to muster a polite nod toward Redmond to acknowledge what Microsoft’s visionaries have made possible, perhaps taking a break from lobbing stink bombs would be a good way to mark the occasion.

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