Sunday, June 22, 2008

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.


©2008 Sridhar Dhanapalan.

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