Microsoft's chairman may have missed the superhighway turn.
Who'll be the next Bill Gates, the next amazing comet of the computer cosmos? 'Success is a lousy teacher,' writes the chairman of Microsoft in his book The Road Ahead. 'It seduces smart people into thinking that they can't lose - and it's an unreliable guide to the future.' It's difficult, he notes, for the industry's leaders to make the switch from one era of computing to the next. The baton tends to be picked up by smaller, nimbler newcomers who are better able to innovate. Nevertheless Gates is determined that he, personally, will make the adjustment. When the industry moves from the PC age to the superhighway age, he says, 'I want to be among the first to cross over.' Others are not at all sure he can do it. At present innovation centres on the Internet, a primitive precursor of the superhighway that Gates envisages. Yet he admits that he underestimated both the growth and potential of the Internet: 'We didn't realise just how fast it would reach its critical mass. I certainly didn't expect everyone to be talking about the Internet in the way that they are now.' Last November Goldman Sachs downgraded Microsoft's investment rating - from 'buy' to 'hold' - largely because of its lack of a clear Internet strategy.
Phil White, founder and chief executive officer of the database software vendor Informix, is one industry insider who has serious doubts about Gates' chances. 'Microsoft is not yet a serious player in the network arena. This is a completely different ball game where the company's products are recognised for their limitations. Diverting Microsoft's resources away from its PC focus, at a time when expo-nential Internet growth is raising further challenges for the PC software environment, is a high risk strategy - and may be a bridge too far.' 'Any company that thinks it will automatically do well in future is, usually, already in deep trouble,' opines John Chambers, chief executive officer of Cisco, the Internet networking company. Cisco is itself tipped by some to be the next Microsoft: it is the world's fastest growing technology company, with sales up from $70 million in 1990 to $2.5 billion today. But if Cisco could succeed Microsoft, Marc Andreessen, the 24-year old behind Netscape Communications Corporation, might be the next Gates. This summer's fabulously successful flotation saw Andreessen's personal wealth rise from near zero to $50 million in a single afternoon.
This was his reward for creating, as a graduate student, the first 'browser' software for the Internet's World Wide Web, a program called Mosaic.
Noting that Microsoft is shortly to bring out its own Internet browser, Andreessen comments that 'the Microsoft browser is basically what we did with Mosaic. I'm glad to see that they've now caught up with what we did two years ago.' Yet Gates has started late before - and ended up in front. The concept behind Microsoft Windows - now running on hundreds of millions of PCs - was first pioneered by the likes of Apple and Xerox. Nor was MS-DOS his own product. The core code was bought in once he'd won the contract for the first PC from IBM. His ability to seize on the innovations of others in order to develop user-friendly software may actually be one of Microsoft's greatest strengths.
'When it comes to accessing the superhighway, computers need to be more people-literate, not people more computer-literate,' believes Joseph De Feo, group operations and technology director at Barclays Bank.
Gates himself seems to be utterly confident. 'Perhaps some time in the next 100 years we will miss a turn in the road,' he says. 'But a lot of people who have predicted that we were going to fail have subsequently been proved wrong.' True, Gates has rarely got it wrong in the past, but the next 18 months are going to be critical.