Microsoft and Bill Gates in the 80′s

Image representing Bill Gates as depicted in C...
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One of the benefits of being a minor mover and shaker in the early days of personal computers is that I got to personally meet a number of people now considered legends. My path crossed with Bill Gates of Microsoft fame a number of times. I had a product named “Show Partner“, a graphical presentation program for MSDOS which was like the eccentric (and possibly senile) grandfather to modern programs such as Microsoft Powerpoint. But it was a compelling enough application in those days to win a bundle deal with the Microsoft Mouse.

In fact, the Brightbill-Roberts business in those days was chiefly centered around turning these Mouse Show Partner users into full-on Show Partner F/X users at $300 a pop. I think it was around 1986 or so when IBM attempted to increase its dominance of the pc market by introducing its PS/2 line of computers. The PS/2 line had a number of enhancements not the least of which was drastically better graphics capability. As you might imagine given the sort of program I was authoring, this was a very big deal for me. But, try as we might, we could not get IBM to disclose the technical details to us for its new computers. We were a direct competitor to one of their own products — Storyboard. And perhaps that coupled with our small size made us beneath consideration in IBM’s eyes.

Enter Microsoft. They were working away on making sure everything in the mouse box would work with the new PS/2 line. Without disclosure, the update to Show Partner was going to be coming in well after the PS/2′s release. So began my short but (I’d like to think) illustrious career at Microsoft. I resigned from my own company and hired on at Microsoft after the attorneys had reviewed everything. I lived out of the Residence Inn in Redmond for 3 months, flying back to Syracuse every once in awhile when circumstances dictated I had to be there. And I feverishly worked on adding support for the additional “VGA” graphics modes of the PS/2.

Long story short… a fully updated Show Partner shipped with the new Microsoft Mouse on the same day the first PS/2 computer shipped. IBM’s own Storyboard update did not ship for another month after that… the schmucks. Ah, yes. Glory days.

So during this period there were 5 buildings on the Microsoft campus with, I think, 2 or 3 more under construction. I remember attending a full Microsoft company meeting in a high school gymnasium (yes, the entire company fit inside at the time) where I was referred to as “half an employee” by Bill in his speech… as in “and the hardware department has now grown to 9 and a half employees (heh heh)”; an inside joke about my coming to work there as an end-around IBM’s stonewalling.

I met with Bill Gates several times while working there and a few times after leaving the company, returning to my own fledgling firm. It must be tough being Bill – he is invariably going to be the smartest guy in any room he walks into. Not to mention the richest. Its going to be difficult for anyone to relate to him as a peer in any given situation. Certainly I did not consider myself to be his peer in programming, business or anything else. Ha! Except maybe in poker. I think Steve Brightbill actually came out on top in a poker game that included Bill at a trade show in San Diego one year. Steve was extremely proud of that as I recall. :-)

Bill Gates also had some behaviors that I now associate with mild autism or Aspergers syndrome. The rocking and repetitive movements while concentrating, for example. These behaviors always seem to come part and parcel with super-extraordinary intelligence, at least among those few geniuses I’ve had the good fortune to meet. On the other hand, Bill was reasonably extroverted and gregarious. And he is and was a fine public speaker. Witness his recent stunt of releasing a swarm of mosquitos into an auditorium as part of his TED speech on malaria. These traits are very un-Aspergers like. So I definitely consider Bill Gates to be one of a kind — all the good stuff and none of the downside.

In the final days of Brightbill-Roberts & Co., as things were starting to come unglued, I went back to the Redmond campus on my return from Seoul where I had been helping a company translate HyperPAD into Korean Hangul. I stopped off to interview for the post of managing the multimedia department there. But as I talked with the programmers there I realized I really had no insight into the stuff they were working on. Microsoft Windows was making my existing programming skills obsolete and I didn’t know a filter graph from a hole in the ground. But the trip was not at all a waste of time as I got to pay a final visit to all the friends I had made at Microsoft over the years. I have many fond memories of my time there.

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