The world according to Gates

The man behind Windows 95 embodies everything that is most contradictor y about modern America
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The Independent Online
Today Microsoft launches Windows 95, an improved version of the most successful piece of computer software in the world. This is perhaps the most important and certainly the most hyped product launch ever. The global computer industry has been paralysed in expectation. Billions of dollars of spending and investment on hardware and software is committed to Windows 95. Millions of leisure and working hours will be determined by the technical demands of this single system.

On the face of it, this is an odd state of affairs. Windows, in all its incarnations, is no more than a code that makes computers function. So far, it has been a rather unsatisfactory code. Apple, the company that first realised the importance of making computers simple to use, has always produced a better, more attractive system than Windows. But Microsoft has won by sheer business genius and aggression.

Microsoft's original MS-DOS system was designed to make all IBM personal computers work. In those days people felt safer with hardware from the mighty IBM, so they had to buy Microsoft software. Now, even when IBM has shrunk to a pale shadow of its former self, Microsoft is unaffected because its initial advantage was so great and because its financial power in this market is unmatched. For the moment, might is right. If Microsoft says Windows 95 is the immediate future of computing, then it is.

This apparently makes Microsoft an extremely safe company, the one still point in the turning world of computing. It has an almost captive market. But, in reality, as Bill Gates, the founder and presiding genius of Microsoft, well knows, his company's position is incredibly fragile, as is that of everybody in this weird business.

Computing power is doubling every 18 months and will probably continue to do so for 30 years. Gates is the most purposefully intelligent man I havemet, but even he cannot possibly grasp the meaning and implications of such exponential growth. If Windows 95 fails, or if somebody finds a whole new way of making computers work, Microsoft could be wiped out in a week. Add to that the unknowable deluge of "product" that will be available on the information superhighway and it becomes clear that there are no safe players in this game, only big gamblers and little gamblers.

To cope with this problem, Microsoft has to perform an interesting cultural balancing act. It has to preserve its entrepreneurial energy, gambler's instincts and small-company flair, however big it gets. But it also needs to make people feel safe with its name. This is essential because it will give the customer some kind of signpost in the marketing zoo that is the computer business, and, eventually, on the information superhighway.

Microsoft's survival in the zoo depends on "branding", a piece of advertising jargon which means, basically, the repeated insertion of your product and company name into the world view of your target customers. Today, Microsoft is indulging in a quite outrageous act of branding. It has bought an entire day's print run of the Times. The paper will be offered free to its readers. Beneath the paper's coat of arms will be the words "Today, The Times free, courtesy of Microsoft".

Clearly, Gates wants to associate himself with the brand image of the Times and, startlingly, that newspaper is happy to play ball.

Imagine a slightly different deal. Imagine: "Today, the Times free, courtesy of Coca-Cola/McDonald's". Unthinkable. But what's the difference?

Well, the superficial answer can easily be found in the realms of sponsorship theory. Sponsorship is all about branding. You want familiarity, but you also want the image of your product to be linked to the image of that which you are sponsoring. Microsoft would be wasting its time sponsoring The Big One, the world's biggest roller-coaster, on Blackpool Pleasure Beach: wrong audience - these tattooed Northerners do not buy software - and wrong image - the last thing you want people to believe about computers is that they are frightening. But Pepsi Max, another fizzy drink, does sponsor The Big One because, for some reason, it likes to associate itself with plunging from great heights and, for some reason, that is exactly what the tattooed ones like to do.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's advertising has been presenting the company as a force for the dissemination of knowledge, power and freedom. Much of the emphasis of the ads is placed on education - luring parents, the buyers of computers for the home, with the paradoxical promise that by leaping into this technological maelstrom they will be sustaining the conservative value of transmitting wisdom.

Behind all of this - the branding, the need for an appearance of solidity in a highly fluid and risky marketplace - there is a single contradiction. Microsoft wants to continue to be seen by the industry as a quick-thinking, hard-nosed market eater. But to the world, it wants to be a solid, freedom- loving institution, bound upon a mission of liberation. It wants to offer us the feeling of institutional continuity - in other words, precisely that which we most flagrantly lack in this globalised, technologised, Microsoftian world. Hence the Times and hence the bracing, yet consoling tone of the advertising.

But, beyond the trivia of advertising and marketing coups, the launch of Windows 95 makes a deeper cultural statement about the way we live now, and about the way the 20th century continues, in spite of everything, to be the American century. For the fascinating thing about this combination of manic technological change and intense conservatism is that it is mirrored in the character of Gates himself and, indeed, in that of the United States.

Gates wants a limitless transformation of the world, but he is also a disciplined, rigorous man who wants his children - not yet born - to go to church and who believes in very strict social values. He is an obsessed, driven, explosive personality who springs from the wealthy establishment of the American West Coast - not, however, from laid-back California, the home of Apple, but from the tougher, more puritanical society of Seattle. He is a technophile, certainly, but not in the style of Silicon Valley. His technophilia is accompanied by a harder, more aggressive frontier mentality. Still within him is the old conviction that what is good for his company is good for America, an idea discarded by the liberal elites, with their ecological and egalitarian concerns.

As such, he is, I believe, more purely American than the hotshots of the East and West Coasts. They take their modernity without a stiffening dose of conservatism. They are more conventionally radical and have little time for the prejudices of the American heartland. To them, technology offers a wholly new world that obliterates the old.

But Gates represents a more ancient American vision. He shares the elites' commitment to change and to movement into the future - the contemporary correlative of the pioneer movement westward - but he combines it with this intense feeling for social order and moral rectitude. The radical, risky opening up of the American West was driven by a Puritan ideology, the same ideology which, through Microsoft, now aspires to open up cyberspace.

The fact that uncontrollable and unlimited change is in obvious conflict with these conservative impulses does not seem to occur to either Gates or America. And I think that is the point. For the belief that they are not in conflict is the benign illusion that has driven the American century. Software writing is the latest manifestation of the dynamism of that illusion - in this field no other nation, not even Japan, is a serious competitor. And software, more than any other product, is creating the future. So, once again, the peculiar chaos of the American soul, forever energised by conflicting impulses, has triumphed. You can have God and Windows 95, you can be safe and free. For a while, at least.