Neil Macy

The Value of An Idea

I'm currently reading "Becoming Steve Jobs" by Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli. As you'd probably guess from the title, it's a biography of Steve Jobs, although as such it also covers parts of the history of the computing industry in general. I found one part that talks about Microsoft's 1990s and 2000s dominance particularly interesting.

In the early 2000s, Microsoft was by far the biggest player in the computer industry. Almost all personal computers ran Windows, and the industry then was almost entirely personal computers, either laptops or desktops. At CES in 2000, Bill Gates described a clear vision for far more personal, interconnected devices. He was essentially describing the world we live in now, with devices like phones and TVs becoming increasingly computer-like, and cloud services becoming the way to get instant access to your music, photos, email etc. from any of these devices. He could see the industry growing from millions of computers on desks, to billions of computers in pockets and around the home. It was also a vision that he expected to play less of a role in, as in January 2000 he stepped down as the CEO of Microsoft and handed control to Steve Ballmer.

Microsoft had an almost 20/20 vision of the future, as set out by Gates. As the authors of Becoming Steve Jobs put it, "all he and Steve Ballmer had to do was execute the strategy". I'm giving the authors the benefit of the doubt here and assuming that was tongue-in-cheek, because at best, that's an incredibly naïve sentence.

If you need an example of how hard it is to turn an idea into reality, and how little value there really is in an idea, as opposed to the execution of an idea, this is it. Microsoft was on top of the world in 2000. It completely owned the computer industry. The company was worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and attracted some of the best talent in the field. And the leaders had exactly the right idea of how the industry would evolve over the next decade. But even with such a seemingly ideal starting point, they couldn't make things happen the way they wanted.

Microsoft is far from gone, but Apple and Google power those billions of devices that Bill Gates foresaw. While they were successfully developing iOS and Android, Microsoft was floundering with various attempts to bring Windows to mobile devices.

Having an idea means nothing on its own. And having all the power and money you could wish for doesn't guarantee success. Being able to turn an idea into reality is much, much harder, but it's also the only thing that matters.

Published on 13 July 2015