The Road Ahead - Bill Gates


While the Microsoft legacy is rich and entrenched, its road ahead has never been more in question with Steve Ballmer’s resignation. The questions that face it about the company’s role in the online and device driven world are not new issues. Ironically, Microsoft was on the forefront of thought leadership in these areas as far back as 1995 with his publication of the book “The Road Ahead” (yes, it neglected to comprehend the “how” of “the Internet”, but it thoroughly presaged the “what” of the “online” world). The book itself was an extension of strategy papers by Bill and Nathan Myhrvold that had been circulating years before.

I always remember Myhrvold’s audacious proposition asking what if everything was free? “What if compute resources were free? What if bandwidth was free?” What would you build and sell in that world. The proposition was not a flippant whim, but rather a logical extrapolation of Moore’s Law (computing) and Gilder’s Law (bandwidth).

In short, it changed everything. The architecture, the business models, the design points. Everything. The only thing that would stay the same is meeting people’s known and unknown needs. But how they were met would be radically different.

Seth Godin dubs these mental propositions a “Paracosm…an ornate, richly detailed imaginary world.” He describes them in his post “Paracosms, loyalty and reality in the pursuit of creative problem solving” underscoring how they depend as much on the embrace of failure as the suspension of disbelief…

  • “Ten or fifteen years ago, I’d sit with publishing chiefs and say, ‘let’s imagine how the world looks when there are no mass market books published on paper…’ Before we could get any further, they’d stop the exercise. ‘It’s impossible to imagine that. Paper is magical. Are you saying you don’t believe in books?’ (I heard variations on this from people as recently as a year ago). The emotional response is easy to understand. If one of the core principles of your business needs to be abandoned in order to act out the paracosm, it feels disloyal to even utter it. Sort of like asking your spouse if he’s going to remarry after you die…And yet. The most effective, powerful way to envision the future is to envision it, all of it, including a future that doesn’t include your sacred cows. Only then can you try it on for size, imagine what the forces at work might be and then work to either prevent (or even better, improve on) that future and your role in it. It’s not disloyal to imagine a future that doesn’t include your founding precepts. It’s disloyal not to.”

If there has been one thing that has held Microsoft back in the past decade it has been its Sacred Cows. Its insanely lucrative sacred cows. The Profit dimension of the Magic Quadrant has been off the scale for these Cash Cows, but the impacts on Growth dimension have been equally ruminant. Not only have they fenced a massive chunk of the business to a steadily maturing and saturating market, but the businesses have sucked so much of the best talent, energy and resources of the company into these relatively secure and stable businesses and away from the burgeoning opportunities of online and devices.

A Seth-urday call for a return to more paracosms for Microsoft.