A look at the enduring legacy of Microsoft on the anniversary of its founding.
"Companies over countries" Mark Zuckerberg has said, envisioning the power and spirit of the modern day entrepreneur as someone who is not just building a productive service but wants to use it as leverage to become a supranational authority on which the whole world will depend. There have been many before Zuckerberg beholden to this view, and none more characteristic than Bill Gates, who co-founded Microsoft in New Mexico 38 years ago today.
In many ways there has been no more important force in contemporary culture than Microsoft. While they have failed to compete with cell phones, tablets, and search engines, their paradigm remains definitive.
The company began when Gates and Paul Allen figured they could write an interpreter that would allow MITS' Altair 8800 computer process BASIC, a programming language that had not been compatible with it to that point. Microsoft's early efforts would help transnationalize the market for software, something that should require separate purchase from a computer, like buying a car and then having to pay for seats, steering wheel, and windshield separately. This approach has been so successful it seems impossible to imagine the computer in any other way, and yet the obviousness of it is attributable to the fact that Microsoft was able to transcend the limits of nationality, and recast the way the world used computers according to its own values.
Microsoft's world vision was preceded by desperation, deception, and an uneasy competition for basic sustenance. Allen had dropped out of his computer science program at the University of Washington, and Gates was in the early stages of an undistinguished academic career at Harvard, sending out his resume hoping $15,000 a year would free him from the duldrums of the classroom. After reading a magazine article about the computer, Allen thought it should be possible to create a BASIC interpreter for it. When the two were invited to show their work in a meeting with MITS, they hadn't actually tested their interpreter on an Altair computer, but with bluster and good fortune, everything worked and they were awarded just what they wanted: a job.
Jobs are not endpoints, but call into being a new set of expectations about what a person should do to make something out of their given position. Because jobs are exceptions from the prevailing uncertainty and fear that underscores a young adult's life, once acquired there is heavy incentive to perpetuate the values of the job, pushing them to new extremes as a demonstration of the lucky selectee's worth to their employer. Gates and Allen began building outward, working toward the creation of a standardized computer language that would allow people to make and sell software to run on a variety of different computers, first with the creation of MS-DOS, and later Windows, the graphical user interface OS that would eventually reach more than a billion people and run on 95% of the desktop and laptop computers around the world.
You could say this radical success was due to good luck, good timing, and the merciless business acumen of Gates, but it's also a product of the jobs-economy that produced him and Allen, taking one novel idea and inflating it to a scale that knits the world together inside a computerized ecosphere whose values are determined by one central body. The paradox of Microsoft's work in building a common platform in order to encourage individuals to develop for its relies on their being centrally defined limits. Designing software distinct from hardware was not Microsoft's great contribution to the computerization of late 20th Century life, but the proliferation of the idea that all software should run on all hardware was distinctly Microsoft's, making something seem like a law of nature not because its true or good but just because it's everywhere. All experiences should be relatable to all people, a value that once accepted, instantly marginalized everything not designed for universality.
It's predictable that Gates' next step after amassing a fortune the size of a developing country's GNP was to involve himself with socio-political concerns, applying the desire to implement a universalizing standard to things other than computer software. The Gates Foundation has become the embodiment of the companies-not-countries ethos, a philanthropic body that would not exist without the capitalist excesses of its founder, that seeks to create a global network of bureaucrats and administrators to develop and oversee certain minimum standards of quality of life that cannot be trusted to governments. The Foundation entrenches the Microsoft paradox by requiring that all criticism of its structure must also be comfortable dismissing the positives of distribution of mosquito nets to pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa, the support for schools where there otherwise would be none, and disaster relieve in Kenya, Myanmar, and India.
The Windows platform remains the natural extension of his and Allen's invention of a program to get someone else's language to run in someone else's machine, and a spirit that carries through in The Gates Foundation's work: our platform, your machine; our standards, your country. In many ways there has been no more important force in contemporary culture than Microsoft. While they have failed to compete with cell phones, tablets, and search engines, their paradigm remains definitive. Companies no longer compete with services but with implicit world views, soliciting not customers but loyal citizens.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.