In his office on the Microsoft corporate campus in Redmond, Wash., Bill Gates took a few moments to reflect on the impact of the IBM PC. Here's the complete interview:
Q. Did you ever say, as has been widely circulated on the Internet, "640K [of RAM] ought to be enough for anybody?"
No! That makes me so mad I can't believe it! Do you realize the pain the industry went through while the IBM PC was limited to 640K? The machine was going to be 512K at one point, and we kept pushing it up. I never said that statementI said the opposite of that.
Q. What was your attitude toward IBM when they first approached you?
We had to be smart about working with IBM. IBM to this day is the biggest company in the computer industry. People misunderstand that. We managed our relationship with IBM because we managed to surprise them again and again with how quickly we were able to do new things.
Q. In your deal with IBM, how much of a key was non-exclusivity-permitting you to sell DOS to other computer makers?
We knew there'd be clones. We had to decide what the seed corn for 16-bit personal computing would be. It made sense for IBM to be the seed corn, because they were not doing it in a way that would prevent other people from building compatible machines. The notion that we were going to license clones was an explicit part of the discussion, which they pushed us on. They said, no, why can't we license and just pay you an additional fee whenever we license a clone? And we said, no way.
Q. If IBM had insisted on exclusivity, would you have done the deal?
No. And believe me, there were many points in the relationship where we had to walk because they were saying something would be exclusive. Our whole role was to provide the standard operating system so the software industry was hardware independent. You had to have pure hardware competition that was orthogonal from software innovation, so that people could do new models of hardware and applications guys didn't have to rev [do an upgrade] for every new piece of hardware.
Q. Do you consider the IBM deal lucky in any way?
IBM came to us because we were the common element of all PCs. If you took Apple, the [Radio Shack] TRS-80, the Atari, the North Star, the IMSAI, there was only one thing in common with all those PCs. That was, Microsoft had done the BASIC-language software on all those things. And there were 50 points in time after IBM first showed up where without cleverness, the IBM relationship would have disappeared.
Q. Any surprises over how the IBM PC evolved over the years?
Networking took longer than we expected. Online services took longer than we expected. Graphics interface took longer. Most things took longer, with the one exception that Internet browsing came on very quickly. And the ironic thing is, every time something would catch on, people would forget it was ever controversial.
Q. Is the PC dead?
There've been a number of times in the history of the PC where people have said, "Oh, it's capped outit's over." This is about the fifth time around where we've been through one of these, but nobody ever remembers the previous ones.
Q. Comparing then with now, is there anything like the PC on the horizon in terms of its impact on information?
If you'd said when the PC came out, "This device will make [film] slides a joke," people would've said, "What the heck are you talking about?" But today that's exactly where we are. As we get more scenarios, whether it's reading, annotation, musicit still will be the PC.
Q. Will we always have a desktop PC like the one on your desk?
It will be a huge flat screen, so the viewing size will be dramatically larger than it is now. It will be your preferred device to leave things on and [will] have a pen to make marks on things. Your input will be a combination of keyboard, pen, mouse, and speech. But yes, at your desk you'll have that device. When you walk away from the desk you'll take a tablet-sized device with you.
Q. Is Microsoft headed toward being a post-Windows company?
No. Windows is our most important product. We're broadening the platform out so that pieces of it can run on the Internet itself and pieces can run on different devices. The magical platform now is .NET. But the actual piece of it that runs on the PC client, where you can run offline, you can do reading and speech recognition and handwriting recognition, that's the pillar on which everything rests.
Q. When you say you're a long-term company, do you feel thwarted by the regulatory process?
No. We're here to build great software platforms. We're doing as much cool stuff today as we've ever been doingI'd say more.
Q. Yet people are calling for the government to block Windows XP.
Remember how AOL tried to block Windows 95? AOL has a perfect record of trying to block every new product Microsoft has done. Would the world have been a better place if AOL had been able to block Windows 95? That's an exercise for the reader. Seriously, the whole PC industry was based on that advance.
Q. What do people miss when they think of Microsoft?
The lens [through which] people understand the company best is when they look at Microsoft Research. When people think about us in terms of hiring smart people [and] using software technology to make new scenarios in handwriting, speech recognition, and tablet computing practical, then they understand why we get enthused about the new stuff we do.
Q. People say you're jazzed about your role as chief software architect. Are you a different Bill Gates than before?
I wouldn't say I'm different. Steve [Ballmer's] stepping up to be CEO has given me a chance to focus on some very important work, the kind of work I enjoy most of all. Today I was in three different meetings talking about reading off a digital screen. Why will it be better, why has an encyclopedia gone from largely a print thing to a digital thing. Will that happen for documents of all typestake magazines as an example? People left those meetings very excited about those scenarios, understanding what the priorities were, how they're going to work with the different groups, what we really had to make simple for those things to come together. That's the kind of stuff I'm spending most of my time on.