Bill Gates may not be revered in quite the same way as his contemporary, Steve Jobs, but that’s more to do with marketing than his influence on the world of technology.
Jobs was a master salesman, adept at convincing an audience his way was the only way, while Gates is (or at least was) an archetypal nerd — albeit one whose technical skill and business acumen has made him the richest person in the world, with a net worth of $76.5 billion, at last count.
Bye bye BASIC
Bill Gates’ first notable achievement after founding Microsoft in 1975 was to create a version of BASIC for the one of the first affordable personal computers, the Altair 8800.
BASIC was (and still is) a simple-to-learn programming language that was already in use by 1975, but Microsoft’s version made it much more popular — not least because it was widely pirated.
That said, BASIC is considered by many to be a poor way to teach programming, but the success of Microsoft’s version is arguably why Sinclair used BASIC on the ZX-81 and why it was the language of choice for the 1980s’ home computer boom.
Without Bill Gates, of course, there would be no Microsoft and no Microsoft BASIC. So it’s unlikely that the language would be anywhere near as well known by the time the Sinclair ZX-80 set the ball rolling. Those home computers would still have needed something to make them work, of course, and there was certainly no shortage of choice.
The problem is that ‘proper’ programming languages like Pascal, Forth and Lisp aren’t anywhere near as intuitive as BASIC, and nor do they give the same immediate results. As a result, home computers would have been pretty boring exercises in computer science, most likely deterring a generation of would-be programmers rather than spurring them on.
So if none of that happened, what would we miss? The list is long, but here’s a small sample. No vibrant 1980s’ home computer market means no back-bedroom industry cranking out innovative computer games for a start, which means many of the games developers we know today wouldn’t exist.
Without those games driving home computer sales, we’d have no Acorn Computers, either — and no Advanced RISC Machines (ARM) processor to power just about every mobile device we use today. But then the Apple II also used BASIC and if that home computer didn’t take off, nor would Apple, so we probably wouldn’t have much in the way of useable modern smartphones anyway.
The loss of DOS
Microsoft’s success with BASIC for the Altair 8800 led Bill Gates and co to create a version for the fledging IBM PC in 1980. That then led to the creation of the PC-DOS operating system for the IBM PC and then the essentially identical MS-DOS used by the ‘PC compatibles’ that appeared in its wake. So without Bill Gates, there’d be no MS-DOS, which means IBM would have needed another way to make its groundbreaking personal computer work.
We suspect this wouldn’t have ended in catastrophe. Before MS-DOS, an operating system called CP/M was in widespread use and IBM actually wanted to use it on their new PC — only a failure to agree to licensing terms stopped it from happening. In fact Microsoft’s PC-DOS closely resembled CP/M in many ways, so it’s not hard to imagine IBM settling on a version of CP/M eventually.
Just like PC-DOS and MS-DOS, CP/M was text based and keyboard driven, so the first few years of the IBM PC and its many clones would most likely be much the same — but then what?
A world without Windows
MS-DOS was followed by Windows, of course, so what would happen if the world’s most popular PC operating system never came to be?
Windows may now be the de facto way of using a PC with a mouse and keyboard, but the operating system didn’t gain its familiar look and feel until Windows 3.0. That version didn’t appear until 1990 and the Apple Macintosh, with a mature and sophisticated mouse-controlled graphical user interface, had already been on sale for six years by then.
The Mac’s ‘GUI’ was inspired by a visit made by Steve Jobs to Xerox PARC in the late 1970s — a company that had already released a mouse-driven PC in 1972, when Bill Gates was still at Harvard. So the Mac would exist even in a world without Windows and Apple might very well be the dominant force on the desktop without competition from Microsoft. But not so fast…
Windows and Mac OS (as it was then) weren’t the only two operating systems with a graphical user interface back in the early days of personal computers. CP/M — the operating system that MS-DOS supplanted — had one, too.
Released for MS-DOS in 1985 (just a few months before Windows 1.0, incidentally), GEM was originally developed for CP/M and it had nothing to do with Microsoft — it was developed by ex-employees of GUI inventors Xerox PARC.
So it’s easy to imagine how GEM running on a raft of CP/M PCs could evolve in much the same way as Windows, with an unprecedented GEM 10 give-away getting users in the same sort of tizzy come 2015. Imaginable, perhaps, but would it have been possible without Bill Gates behind it?
Bill Gates’ lasting legacy
It’s certain that Bill Gates’ drive and determination are the main reasons Microsoft are to become one of the most successful companies ever, but those traits have done more than just shape the modern world of technology.
As we mentioned at the start, Gates’ efforts at Microsoft have also made him spectacularly wealthy, but is that something else we’d miss he if didn’t exist? Let’s hope so.
He may be richer than most us can imagine, but Bill Gates is also more generous that most of us imagine and he’s pledged to donate 95% of his fortune to charity — around $72 billion, based on his current estimated wealth.
The mammoth philanthropic effort comes courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Gates and his wife founded in 1997 — a foundation that has since been recognised as the world’s wealthiest, with assets estimated at $34.6 billion.
The Foundation’s activities are transparent (unlike many others) and focus mainly on improving healthcare and reducing extreme poverty. It’s perhaps too early to say what lasting effect the Foundation will have on the world (eradicating polio is just one of its many aims), but with the vast amount of money at its disposal — topped up by gargantuan pledges extracted by Gates from other super-rich people — it will hopefully be a big one. And one we’d really miss if it wasn’t around.
More recently, Gates gave away 64 million Microsoft shares to charity, which are thought to be worth 4.6 billion dollars. The donation is thought to be Gates's biggest since 2000.