Bill Gates Dilemma or When AOL Conquered The Universe By Mistake
In 1996, Bill Gates published Bill Gates: The Road Ahead, popularizing his Microsoft question: “Where do you want to go today?”
Would he ask the same question in 2019?
Excerpted from Amazing: Truths About Conscious Awareness
In late 1997, I went to work for a technology company that had a promotional poster for Gates’ book framed on a prominent wall. You couldn’t go to the toilets without passing it.
I never read the book; so, I can’t say a thing about his ideas. But it’s undeniable that Bill Gates and other creators of computer technologies have had a spectacular impact on how we live our lives in a very short time. And not just on the technology side.
Bill Gates old buddy, the late, brilliant Steve Jobs, ran the second most highly capitalized company in the world without harnessing himself with a suit or tie. Jobs was a vegan and was impatient and abrupt with the press and even customers. No P.R. or sucking up for Steve.
Achievers, especially inspiring achievers, slice through the crowd and are often respected for it, as long as they’re not borderline crazy, like Steve Balmer, for instance, or Google’s Eric Schmidt who left a mainstream company, Novell, that was overrun with suits to hang out with dudes in blue jeans and accumulate billions.
During the interview, she claims that Jobs told her, “I never met an H.R. person who didn’t suck.”
Unverifiable, of course, but nobody stood up to claim it didn’t sound like Steve Jobs to them.
Otherwise inconsequential events, like the winter day I first noticed designer jeans replacing workingman budget apparel, have claimed space in the more accessible file drawers of memory because they were markers.
In the midst of Schmidt’s bizarre reign at Novell, his company arranged a partnership with then prominent Netscape, not yet scalped by Microsoft, to jointly produce a web server. Web servers were big deals when the internet was ascending fast and mushrooming as it grew.
This was 1997. Schmidt’s marketing geniuses at Novell had already renamed their flagship product InterNetWare, convinced that all computer networking would soon be migrating to the web, a vision he carried over to Google where it’s finally timely.
What I remember most about the report on this partnership, was that none of the executives wore suits and ties when they announced Novonyx, the server of the future. Novell began including the software in its newest product releases, significant because theirs was still the most popular of computer networking software, holding on to roughly sixty percent of the market with Microsoft’s NT closing the gap fast.
Executives with open collars aren’t surprising anymore, but at the time, the appearance symbolized a quantum shift. We went from corporations run by old white men in suits to leaders of the pack who were young (still white, of course), in casual attire and on an express train without stops.
Formal ways of thinking about business and culture were shifting, too.
Novell, by the way, even after being dumped by Schmidt as he escaped Utah, remained awash in a sea of suits and ties as it crumble into the Twenty-first Century like a high fiber, low fat muffin, chock full of dubious nutrients.
An unforgettable moment, not sufficiently appreciated for its cultural humor–taken only as goodnatured clowning–was the acquisition of Time-Warner by then internet giant, America On Line. Gerald Levin from T-W showed up casual while AOL’s Steve Case arrived in a tailored suit and tie. Who knew he had one?
As unprepared as any company could be to cuddle among gray-haired elites, AOL drove decisively forward in choking Time-Warner in chaotic, ill-considered change.
All employees in the newly aligned operations were ordered to abandon their existing email systems, for instance, in favor of AOL’s popular with youth “You’ve got mail!” nattiness.
Managers and sales teams accustomed to using their email programs as digital file systems were instantly, as we used to say, “excrement” out of luck.
(I knew some guys in the cable division who kept a secret and forbidden GroupWise server running, disguised as something else, hoping for a future marked by the return of grownups.)
Fortunately, AOL Time-Warner’s board kept enough heads above the water to avert disaster by kicking, first, Steve Case and, then, the rest of AOL out of the striking building that now casts a shadow over Central Park and has a Whole Foods in the basement.
Visitors to the commercial lobby filled with pricey boutiques openly fondle the penis of a prominent Botero nude. Wishing for whatever kind of luck is personally appropriate, I guess. Informalities are now, for better or worse, more densely ingrained in our culture.