The Road Ahead, 2nd edition / Bill Gates

This review appeared on my previous blog, Rat's Reading.

Some years ago I received as a gift the modern equivalent of knitted socks, Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead. Like the knitted socks, the book went on my shelf unread. I’m kind of surprised I haven’t given this book away in one of my very minor purges. But seeing as how it’s been a decade since Penguin saw fit to publish the book, I thought it was high time to read it and see how much I was inspired to point and laugh at Bill’s prognostications.

Cover of The Road Ahead

First thing that should be noted is that this is the completely revised and up-to-date edition (which I abbreviated as 2nd edition above). Penguin published this edition in 1996, only a year after the first edition. Why was it so quick to completely revise the book and put out a new edition? When Bill wrote the first version, he vastly underestimated how important and how quickly the internet would come to prominence. To be completely fair, when I first saw a demonstration of NCSA Mosaic in 1993 my response was so what? So many other people had pushed hyperlinking systems and had failed that I didn’t see much chance of this one succeeding. However, I have to say that by 1995 even I had a good idea of the magnitude of change coming. Bill Gates missed it at first. He refers to it obliquely in the book by noting a number of video-on-demand collaborations that were abruptly terminated as the internet rose to prominence in 1995. One of these included Microsoft as a partner. However, Gates is somewhat disingenuous in the book when he makes it seem like it was only a minor change to the timing that took Microsoft by surprise. Microsoft was caught completely flat-footed. What saved them was that they had a vast library of software code and a vast war chest. A vast library meant that finding bits that could be tweaked for the internet were possible. And the war chest meant they could buy what couldn’t be turned around in house. For instance, purchasing NCSA Mosaic and using the code as the basis for Internet Explorer. To Microsoft’s credit, when it did realize the scope of their error, they quickly turned much of the company toward it.

In any case, the book had to be extensively re-written to make Bill appear to be the visionary. Hard to be a visionary when your vision is only good for a year. But his second bite at the apple was much more accurate. You can definitely see him working with blinders on to a significant degree. He still hypes video-on-demand and producers of content like MSN and AOL. But he missed such innovations that were already in progress at that time, such as portals (Yahoo gets a brief mention as a directory service). His vision of computers and networks in education is woefully lacking in any real ideas. But he seems to have understood the dynamics of paying for content and shopping on the internet, long before it generally understood.

All in all, it’s a pretty decent, if somewhat general, set of prognostications. Overall, it’s not too far off. As for his writing style, there is more self-promotion and patting himself and Microsoft on the back than I would prefer to read. One of the reasons I generally don’t read the book of the month by the latest fad business leader.

And lastly, he noted that Microsoft isn’t omnipotent, but he doesn’t note in the book where he sees the biggest challenge to their dominance coming from. Something that’s proved to be a huge force between 1997 and 2006 could very likely be their downfall. And there’s nary a word about it in the book and only a few items even touch on the concepts that are related. Open source. He missed it completely. Not one mention of Linux, which even then was beginning to make itself known. And already open source content such as some of O’Reilly’s early projects were affecting content. Gates hypes encyclopedic content and in particular Microsoft Encarta. But hardly anyone these days is going to use Encarta over Wikipedia. There are some significant drawbacks to Wikipedia, but the breadth of content and ease of access to it’s content make it a fine starting point for reference information on general purpose topics. I personally believe that Stallman’s vision of charging for computer expert’s time only is a pipe dream; proprietary software has it’s place and will continue to be a decent size chunk of the software market, particularly in the area of software as a service. But it’s also very clear that open software, open content, and particularly open standards are going to be a larger driving force in the years to come than Microsoft or another big software company.

In any case, don’t bother buying the book, but if you come upon a copy in the library, it’s worth 3 to 5 minutes worth of browsing to get an idea of his ideas. Beyond that, don’t bother.

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