Bill Gates and the importance of source code

Bill Gates was inter­viewed by the BBC’s Money Pro­gramme. As he pre­pares to sig­ni­fic­antly reduce his dir­ect work for Microsoft Cor­por­a­tion, Bill reflects upon what got him star­ted in the first place and what kept him ahead of the ‘com­pet­i­tion’. The video provides a brief glimpse into the char­ac­ter that foun­ded and guided Microsoft. Regard­less of whether you love him or hate him, he is indeed a fas­cin­at­ing character.

Skip ahead to the 40 second mark, to the seg­ment titled “How the teen­age Gates and his friend Paul Allen got access to a com­puter”. The story accord­ing to Gates was that he and his friends were allowed to hack on a company’s com­puter “like mon­keys” at night to find bugs. He spent hours read­ing manu­als and exper­i­ment­ing to fig­ure out this “fas­cin­at­ing puzzle”. How­ever, they were stuck at the “tinker­ing” stage until they stumbled across the source code in a rub­bish bin. It was only then could the mon­keys evolve.

I don’t think the pro­du­cers of the show real­ised the sig­ni­fic­ance of this admis­sion, since they quickly cut to another seg­ment. Read­ing between the lines, Gates is essen­tially con­fess­ing that he would not have pro­gressed had he and Paul Allen not found the source code. Without this know­ledge, and without this oppor­tun­ity to under­stand and exper­i­ment with how the intern­als of a com­puter worked, Gates and Allen would have been severely con­strained in their abil­ity to found a soft­ware com­pany and develop products

I would go so far as to say that Microsoft owes its very exist­ence to this access to source code.

To any­one with a passing famili­ar­ity to how things worked back then, this comes as no sur­prise. Source code was expec­ted to be free, and this in turn nur­tured a gen­er­a­tion of com­puter hack­ers. But whereas Richard Stall­man saw the amaz­ing poten­tial of this free­dom and wanted to pre­serve it for all, Bill Gates appears to have per­ceived it as an advant­age for him­self that he must deny to others.

LotD:  Gates memo shows user frustration