The same old song: Gates, Torvalds said it all

Having attended PC industry conferences for more than 20 years, I have seen plenty of keynote speeches. Few have been memorable, given the self-serving content. To get a feel for the real issues, you often have to look beyond the keynote verbiage and instead take a hard look at the keynote presenter.

This was especially true of last week's Spring Comdex opening keynotes.

For those who were not there, Bill Gates, the industry's master keynoter, preceded the new-kid-on-the-block keynoter, Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux. Sure, Gates drew a bigger crowd -- he ought to. Attendees who couldn't even spell 'Linux' wanted to see the richest man in the world speak. But given each speaker's keynote material, many attendees spent last week comparing the two individuals. Some of the younger folks even went so far as to call Torvalds the next Gates. Yeah, right.

Torvalds must have studied old Gates keynotes, because he flawlessly duplicated Gates' early style. But Linus is not Bill. And actually, comparing the two isn't even appropriate. It is more accurate to compare these two individuals to hardware titans from 15 years ago. I even think their outcomes will be the same.

Look back to mid-1984. The two key hardware leaders then were Don Estridge and Steve Jobs. Estridge was the vice president of IBM's systems products division and better known as the father of the IBM PC. Jobs was then promoting a new personal computer, the Macintosh.

Don spoke with great authority and awesome vision and had big research numbers to back it up. He saw IBM as a facilitator for the industry but wanted IBM to be the company that set the standards for hardware. OK, maybe it was self-serving, but when Don spoke, everyone listened. Honestly, if Don hadn't died in a freak 1985 plane crash, I think the competitive hardware landscape would be vastly different today.

Bill Gates now talks like Don, and people listen just as attentively. Bill said that more than 20 OEMs, 100,000 partners, thousands of ISVs, and more than 500,000 customers are waiting for Windows 2000. After all, Gates just wants to set the standard for the software platform. And barring any accident, Gates will continue to promote Microsoft's ability to set the standard into the next decade.

Steve Jobs had a different mission. He just wanted a choice in computers. So while IBM had a lock on the corporate market, Jobs wanted a computer that was for "the rest of us".

The purity and passion of his vision and desire drove his mission; he literally willed the Mac into existence. The passion of Mac followers kept it alive and well despite serious management blunders.

Unfortunately for Jobs, his passion project never broke beyond the niche stage. But like Ferraris, Macs have a place in the market, and many people are very passionate about their continued existence.

Just like Linus Torvalds. He didn't start championing Linux for his personal fame. He had no dream of becoming a software titan.

He just wanted a choice in OSs. He wanted to help build the coolest OS that could be created by combining the best minds from around the world. And he's achieved that goal: Linux is a very cool OS.

Still, even if Linux is a great product, it's still relegated to its server niche. I predict it will never be a mainstream leader. Sure, many of its challenges can be addressed, but not all of them or cohesively. And, like the Mac, Linux will show Microsoft some ways to make its industry leader better. Given Microsoft's historical response to competition, Microsoft is likely to assimilate the best of the Linux features and put them into Windows.

So whether it was hardware products 15 years ago or software OSs today, the game is the same.

The players are different, but the outcome will probably be the same. Passion will lose to calculating leadership, unless that leader gets too myopically focused. And Microsoft runs that risk.

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