Something I learned today about Microsoft

I recall when I was in high school, some old guy told me that Microsoft got really lucky with its IBM deal. I didn’t know about that, and I didn’t care enough to learn about that until today. Apparently, Microsoft bought the license for an operating system created by Gary Kildall and his company by the name of CP/M, from which they derived MS-DOS. It is said that Microsoft basically

According to Wikipedia,

When Digital Research founder Gary Kildall examined PC DOS and found that it duplicated CP/M’s programming interface, he wanted to sue IBM, which at the time claimed that PC DOS was its own product. However, Digital Research’s attorney did not believe that the relevant law was clear enough to sue. Nonetheless, Kildall confronted IBM and persuaded them to offer CP/M-86 with the PC in exchange for a release of liability.

I’d totally believe it. The truth is to win in business, even in technology, is as much if not more about connections, marketing, and legal tactics, than about the innovativeness of the actual technology and product itself. Bill Gates, in addition to being very gifted technically, was from a very prominent family, with his father as a partner of a law firm, and he was willing to engage to the extremes in cutthroat, win-at-all-costs behavior.

I can see the following analogy. Bill Gates is to Gary Kildall as Thomas Edison is to Nikola Tesla. Tesla was much stronger, more inventive, and more farsighted technologically, but Edison was the one to successfully commercialize and gain credit, and similarly, Kildall actually did very foundational programming work, in compilers and operating systems, or so it seems; Bill Gates did not but he ended up winning. Heck, Kildall even had it much worse in many ways. Tesla is more or less a household name, though less so than Edison. On the other hand, very few people have heard of Kildall. I see another, less direct analogy. You know how the Chinese government is often despised for using access to the Chinese market to extort technology/IP from foreign companies? Concretely, there is that China purchased high speed rail technology from German and Japanese companies and basically reverse-engineered and re-designed it, and eventually with its size, built what is now by far the world’s largest high speed rail network. I wouldn’t be surprised if what the Chinese did in high speed rail technology was mostly of an incremental and scaling nature, as opposed to one of foundational innovation. As much hype as there is in the media about Chinese tech, I still don’t see all that much radical innovation there. Of course, that has much to do with China’s having started very very behind. When you’re like that, you can in most fields only learn and copy, and even that is often pretty non-trivial. After all, most countries and corporations cannot even copy. So you could say there is somewhat of a parallel between China and Microsoft. The one glaring exception I can think of is that China sucks at marketing, while Microsoft is for the most part good at it. By the way, Bill Gates is revered, often blindly, in China, with few people there seeming to know or care about his nasty side. He has marketed himself very successfully, especially his whole philanthropic foundation. As cynical as I am, I think Bill Gates is doing all that mostly after he already won, to redeem himself, reputation wise.

There is another parallel between the two. Microsoft may not be the best at anything or closely relatedly, terribly innovative, but it can do just about everything, and China is like that too. Microsoft has its own software ecosystem, from operating system to programming language to distributed system to search engine to word processor to phone (which I just learned got cancelled). Microsoft even has a prominent games division, with Xbox and Age of Empires, which I much enjoyed playing as a kid, though I wasn’t very good at it. In this way, Microsoft is more comprehensive than Google. Google doesn’t really have programming languages (C# is a much bigger deal than Go as far as I can tell), nor does it have its own PC. And the other major tech companies like Apple, Facebook are all much more specialized.

I’ll conclude with a comment on my take related to this whole trade war ongoing between US and China that’s been so big in the media lately, particularly on how US likes to blame to China for stealing its technology. I seriously believe this is way overblown, though of course I can’t know for sure how much actually valuable the Chinese actually managed to steal from US defense companies. To convince you that I’m not saying this out of any ethnic bias, I’ve give some justification of my position.

First of all, those really smart, high trained, and highly creative/innovative/productive mainland Chinese in America have mostly stayed in America, benefitting American companies and the American economy massively. Sure there is some communication and collaboration with people in China, but I would expect it to be relatively minimal in anything that is terribly advanced and not already in the public domain (which means academia doesn’t count). Why? Because if you’re working in America at the cutting edge of technology you’re busy enough yourself. And you’re a Pacific Ocean apart. But if those people actually return to China with their expertise, then they could contribute massively to China’s science and technology. There seems to be much more of that happening in the past couple years, and I expect the trend to continue that way.

There is also that military technology wise, China seems to be developing mostly indigenously, with of course much input from Russia, whose equipment at the most advanced level China often prefers over her own for obvious reasons. After all, the technological ecosystem left behind by the former USSR that Russia inherited, while much inferior to the US one, is still quite formidable. On this, I find it necessary to extend this to a phenomenon with much deeper roots little heard of in America due to political bias. It is that China more or less unambiguously got way more technologically from the former Soviet Union than from the US. China’s modern technology and industry was essentially founded upon what the Soviet Union gave to China in the 50s. That was the decade when China achieved basic modernization in a comprehensive way with the help of the designs the Soviet Union provided then for a wide array of technologies from chemical plants to cars to airplanes, that was accompanied by Soviet experts actually working in China. It has occurred to me given how effective the Soviet STEM education system was, they had trained enough of a surplus of, relative to the ones working at home, second-rate, scientists and engineers and technicians to send to China. Sure, there were some highly trained, brilliant people with higher education and work experience in the US who returned to China in the 50s who did important work there afterwards, but that doesn’t really count as actual technology transfer. There was basically no direct exchange with the US during that period. So if Russia blames China for stealing its technology, there is not really all that much that the Chinese can say, given their history of more or less cloning a lesser version of the best that the Soviets/Russians had, but if the US does, China can perfectly reasonably say for many things that the US had basically nothing to do with it.

Why am I saying this? Because there seems to be much misunderstanding in America on this matter, so I feel somewhat obliged to point this out. How people will react, that is another matter. But I’ll at least keep a solid, publicly viewable record.

I consider myself pretty dispassionate by the way. I mostly want to understand how the world actually works. There is propaganda everywhere, but I shall say that much of US propaganda is especially ridiculous. Given the pervasiveness and dominance of Anglo culture, a legacy of the British Empire and later American supremacy of course, it might fool the majority of people, but there will always be some who cannot be fooled, even if they grow up in America. I think it’s time that American elites face the truth instead of denying it; it’ll be beneficial for both America and the world at large. Downgrading and outright denying the achievements and ability of groups or nations for political reasons signifies not only poor character, but also personal insecurity. No other elite does this as grossly as the American elite. Also, a propaganda/culture war is hard to sustain if relies too much on telling lies. America’s doing this will also further alienate the elites of certain high achieving groups in America who contribute much to America’s technology and innovation. It cannot last forever.

In saying this I convey another implicit message. It’s important to be technically strong, but it’s just as important if not more so to know how to stand up for yourself and even act in a cutthroat/rogue way if really necessary. Know how to advocate for yourself and don’t let others take credit for your work and your accomplishments. China could learn more of that side of Bill Gates, and I believe they already are. Of course, they will do even better in the future with that. Another group that ought to do that, with allusion to Michael O Church, are the programmers and technologists in Silicon Valley and in America at large, who are an increasingly marginalized group. It’ll be good for both themselves and for America as a country.