It was Bill Gates who first mapped out the future of Apple. He did so on January 5, 2000, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. Of course, he’d intended to lay out a game plan for Microsoft, not Apple. But that’s not the way things worked out.
CES was an up- and- coming trade show back then. For years it had been the gathering point for people making everything from car speakers to stereo systems to televisions, from electronic football games that beeped as you pushed the buttons to video cameras to home security systems. The arrival of computer companies transformed the event, and within a few years it would become the largest digital technology exposition of them all, drawing audiences upwards of 150,000 and all but paralyzing Sin City for a week each January. Apple didn’t attend CES. Steve preferred to announce his products in an environment he controlled.
Microsoft didn’t control CES, but it certainly overshadowed everyone else. Chairman Gates, who relinquished his CEO title to Steve Ballmer in 2000, gave the keynote speech eight years running. Gates was a natural choice as the show’s semipermanent celebrity speaker, and he used the dais as a bully pulpit. In 2000, Microsoft really was the computer industry. Some 90 percent of the world’s personal computers ran its Windows operating system. Its software managed not only desktop and laptop PCs but also the servers that stored and organized the data of the world’s biggest corporations, and that undergirded the information technology of most governmental bureaucracies. Inside ATMs and cash registers, at airline check- in counters, and on the decks of aircraft carriers, Microsoft software made the world’s most sophisticated technologies hum. If the consumer electronics universe was about to be thrown into turmoil, who better to hear from than the leader of the industry doing the disrupting?
That evening, Gates spoke to a standing- room- only crowd of more than three thousand people at the Las Vegas Hilton Theater, where he revealed how Microsoft would “usher in the ‘consumer- electronics- plus’ era.” PCs running the Windows operating system would become the central component of “home media centers” that would harness the Internet and interact with consumer devices and even household appliances, all loaded with Microsoft software. This would be a bonanza for consumers, he explained, because they would now get “personalized, convenient access to their favorite music, news, entertainment, family photos and email through an array of consumer electronics, including televisions, telephones, home and car stereos, and Pocket PCs.”
The speech was a forecast, a warning, and a blueprint. Gates posited a vision of what the home would look like after the realization and interweaving of a set of trends. There would be much more connectivity among devices, access to a new range of digital content and programming via the Internet, newly interactive video games played at home, and gizmos with responsive screens and software smarts to replace mere electronic gadgets with push buttons. This is what we are going to do to your world, Gates was telling the manufacturers of consumer electronics. It is coming whether you like it or not, because this is what digital technology does to an industry. So get on board, you old- timers tinkering with microwave ovens and car stereos and televisions and headphones. Here’s how you can fit in to your own future, which actually belongs to us!
Such was Microsoft’s power, at that moment, as the unquestioned ruler of the empire of computing. The company had so thoroughly infiltrated and then controlled every aspect of the world’s defining digital technology that it seemed obvious to most everyone attending CES that if this was the future Microsoft wanted, this was the future. The obvious implication that Gates left unsaid was that this would be an enormous bonanza for Microsoft, which, by establishing the specifications that all kinds of hardware manufacturers would need to follow, would ensure its own dominance in the next brave new world.
Ruling the market for new consumer electronics devices might have solved Gates’s biggest problem: the fact that Microsoft was no longer growing at the galloping 25- plus percent pace investors like to see in a tech company. Remember that when Bill and Steve got into the business, computing still belonged to the IBMs and DECs of the world, with their big, expensive machines sold into a market consisting of a few hundred corporations, governments, and universities. As Moore’s law drove prices down, PC manufacturers sold their wares to a galaxy of other businesses, both big and small, that could now afford powerful computing that would make them more efficient. But numerically speaking, the biggest potential audience of all was relatively untapped. Once you can sell computing to consumers directly, and once you get computing into products that become part of their everyday lives, the volumes become transformative. Consider this: According to researchers at the Gartner Group, 355 million personal computers— servers, desktop PCs, and laptops— were sold around the world in 2011. Some 1.8 billion cellphones were sold the same year. And that’s a number that doesn’t include all the other kinds of computing- based or networkable devices that might become part of a consumer’s life, including video game consoles, audio players, radios, thermostats, car navigation systems, and anything else that can become smarter through the power of connected computing.
Gates, who is perhaps the world’s shrewdest business strategist, saw this future coming. And he expected Microsoft to garner the same slice of this world that it had of the computing world. After all, who else could possibly define the standards for digital interaction between devices? This had been Gates’s game: envisioning and delivering the future. The scale of his concerns and ambitions dwarfed Steve’s. He wanted Microsoft software on billions of devices; Steve just wanted anything that would help him sell a few thousand more Macs each month. Gates was the only one who could reasonably think about dominating his awkwardly named but clearly inevitable “consumer- electronics- plus” era. He was powerful, and very, very smart: despite his penchant for dense verbiage, he had done a wonderful job describing the future of computing as we now have it, some fifteen years later. All he and Steve Ballmer had to do was execute the strategy. If they could, they would steer the company through its transition to this future, and in so doing return Microsoft to the kind of growth that investors wanted to see.
No one knew it at the time, but Gates’s speech that January morning in Las Vegas marked the apex of Microsoft’s hegemony. On December 31, 1999, the company had been worth $619.3 billion, with a share price of $58.38. It would never be worth more.
Instead, a company still struggling to survive on the fringes of computing would execute Gates’s vision. It would do so by moving incrementally, by following its nose where the technology led, and by being opportunistic. Over the next few years, Steve Jobs would steer Apple toward a whole new rhythm of doing business. No one would have guessed it then, but the future belonged to Apple, not Microsoft.