Networker: The charmless god

Issue 

Networker: The charmless god

Microsoft's Bill Gates has done it again, proving himself the consummate information technology marketer of the new millennium. On February 17 the latest version of the Microsoft operating system is released, Windows2000.

Several years in the making, this is being launched as the ultimate in versatile small and medium range operating systems. It represents a major assault on the traditional mid-range operating system, Unix.

An operating system is a collection of programs which makes sense of whatever hardware and other bits and pieces are connected together in a computer system. For a home PC, it connects the mouse, keyboard, memory, disk drives, screen, printer, modem and so on to the heart of the computer, the central processor unit or CPU. CPUs have names like Pentium II. Operating systems have names like Windows98 or Linux.

In a large computer site, where many PCs are connected together, there are also servers. These hold large amounts of data or are responsible for important resources such as corporate printing facilities. They need to be much more reliable than individual PCs because many users rely on each server.

The Unix operating system family has traditionally been superior in reliability and performance to the Microsoft family. It has always floundered, however, because of lack of standardisation. The various Unix vendors each refused to give up possible market advantage by agreeing on a common standard, so Microsoft marched straight past them in market dominance.

Until recently the only place that Unix has hung on is in the server market. Here the chronic unreliability of Microsoft products has left the field open. Windows2000 is meant to challenge that.

Microsoft isn't getting a completely free run. For PCs, the Linux operating system is providing an alternative for users with some technical skill who want to save money and have a more reliable product. In the server market as well, impending doom has convinced a major Unix provider, Sun, to offer free operating system software in some circumstances.

Another blot on the horizon for Microsoft is the mass of legal attacks which it is facing. The US Department of Justice suit has now been joined by a case under investigation in the European Union.

It would be a mistake to see these legal attacks as a threat to Gates' wealth. In the US there is a tradition that whenever the government orders the break up of a trust, whether in oil, telephone services or elsewhere, the owners end up richer than before.

But Gates' marketing genius is not shown by the impending launch of Windows2000 or his manoeuvring to become the owner of not one but several of the richest companies in the world. It is in something else entirely.

In early February, barely a week before the Windows2000 launched, Gates announced that the whole Microsoft operating system needs an overhaul to prepare it for the internet. As the company's head "visionary", Gates stated that he would set about changing the way that Microsoft operating systems operated.

This brings to mind the launch of Windows95 a few years ago. At the time, this was the largest ever software launch, with an advertising budget of more than $100 million. Yet even as the product was being launched, Microsoft executives were whispering that this was really just a stopgap measure, and that what consumers really needed was WindowsNT.

So while the fashion industry bases itself on poor self-image and the life insurance industry plays on people's fear of old age, Gates works on a new phobia: fear of one's computer's inadequacy.

As the former head of Microsoft China, Wu Shihong, wrote in her reminiscences last year, "He is a god without personal charm. A genius capitalist. One of his friends said 'Bill can conquer the world but he can't move anybody's heart'."

By Greg Harris