As Gates Steps Away, Let Us Ponder His Legacy

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By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 28, 2008

Microsoft experienced a ritual yesterday that is common to offices across America: a valued employee's last day. Co-workers paused to gather around their departing colleague, speeches were made and perhaps some cake was consumed.

But this employee isn't just any staff member; he is Bill Gates. Although he will remain chairman, his day-to-day role with the company is over. How do you sum up 33 years spent building the world's largest software company? What accomplishments do you highlight? What topics are best avoided for the sake of politeness?

In Gates's case, sometimes it's hard to tell.

The BASIC Way: 1975

Gates and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen wrote an efficient, useful version of this programming language that ran on the first personal computers, opening software development to mere hobbyists. From the first text-only, keyboard-bound MS-DOS releases onward, one of the foremost virtues of Microsoft's operating systems has been the staggering variety of third-party programs available for them.

Word Arrives: 1983

With this word-processing program, the company laid the foundations for its nearly omnipresent Microsoft Office suite and largely defined how most people write today. (That's not all good: Many Word users think a 1985 Washington Post review's description of Word as "slow and complicated" still applies.) A quarter-century later, Word has become such a standard that Microsoft's biggest marketing problem is persuading customers to trade up to new versions.

Replaced Windows: 1995

The jump from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 still constitutes the most dramatic improvement Microsoft has provided with an upgrade. Win 95 let millions of users forget about DOS commands and start checking out the Internet, and its interface set the pattern for Microsoft's subsequent operating systems. But Win 95 also standardized aspects of Microsoft computing, like the install/uninstall routines used to add or remove programs, that should have been retired years ago.

Explorer Sets Sail: 1995

This Web browser has gone from being an upstart innovator challenging a dominant player (Netscape Navigator) to the dominant player challenged by an upstart innovator (Navigator's open-source descendant, Mozilla Firefox). Why? Through arrogance or neglect, Microsoft all but ceased Explorer's development once it had monopoly status -- even as the Web became increasingly cluttered, confusing and dangerous.

Behind the Music: 1999

The company built the Windows Media Digital Rights Management software to help record labels and movie studios distribute controlled copies of their work online, but things didn't go according to the script. Some firms in Hollywood shied away from giving Microsoft such a major role in their business; stores running on Windows Media DRM repelled customers with absurd usage limitations; Apple built a simpler, more compatible DRM setup that customers could actually tolerate -- and now much of the music sold online comes without DRM at all.

Xbox Nation: 2001

The personal computers many people use these days don't look like traditional PCs at all. With the Xbox, Microsoft showed that it could compete outside the realm of machines with keyboards and mice -- and helped knock Sega out of the video game business.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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