When Bill Gates urged Apple to license Mac technology

'Letters of Note' website publishes fascinating 1985 memo from Gates to John Sculley

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates each co-founded their own hugely successful computer companies that, in their own ways, revolutionized modern technology.

But back in June 1985, the fortunes of Gates and Jobs were diverging dramatically. While Gates, then 30, remained as chief executive of Microsoft, Jobs was months from departing Apple -- the company he co-founded with Steve Wozniak and historical footnote Ronald Wayne -- in the wake of losing a power struggle with CEO John Sculley, whom Jobs had personally recruited to run the fledgling computer company just two years earlier.

After Jobs lost the battle for control with Sculley, he was demoted by Apple's board of directors and by June 1985 was no longer in control of the company's Macintosh division, which is why Jobs was not one of the recipients of a June 25 memo in which Gates offered a strategy suggestion that, if followed, might have dramatically changed the course of Apple's history. And probably resulted in millions of fewer rabid Apple fanboys today.

The memo was printed last Thursday on a fascinating website called "Letters of Note," whose goal is to publish "correspondence deserving of a wider audience."

For example, the item posted the day after the Gates memo is a letter from 19th century abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass to the Maryland slave master who owned him before Douglass escaped.

There's also a 1905 letter from an irate Mark Twain in response to what might be considered an early form of pharmaceutical spam.

But back to the Gates memo. In it, he suggests to Sculley and Jean Louis Gassée (who replaced Jobs as head of the Mac division) that if Apple truly was serious about being an "innovative technology leader" in computers, it "must make Macintosh a standard."

The significant investment (especially independent support) in a "standard personal computer" results in an incredible momentum for its architecture. Specifically, the IBM PC architecture continues to receive huge investment and gains additional momentum. ...

The closed architecture prevents similar independent investment in the Macintosh. The IBM architecture, when compared to the Macintosh, probably has more than 100 times the engineering resources applied to it when investment of compatible manufacturers is included.

Gates goes on to recommend that Apple "license Macintosh technology to 3-5 significant manufacturers for the development of 'Mac Compatibles.'"

Among the "ideal companies" to whom Gates suggests Apple consider licensing Mac technology were AT&T, Wang, Digital Equipment Corp., Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard.

Remember, though, that these were "ideal." Among the companies Gates considered to be "perhaps more realistic candidates" were Xerox, Motorola, Harris/Lanier, NBI Burroughs, Kodak and 3M.

While Gates made sure to emphasize that "Microsoft is very willing to help Apple implement this strategy," in the end his advice was spurned, in large part due to the strenuous objection of Gassée, whose devotion to Mac purity would have made Jobs proud were he not at the time planning his departure from the company he co-founded.

Gates, however, took his own advice. In November 1985, Microsoft released Windows 1.0, thus beginning the Windows era and launching Microsoft on a path to unparalleled success over the next 15 years. Just 16 months later, Microsoft went public, eventually creating more than 10,000 millionaires among Redmond's employees, many of whom may be able to thank Sculley and Gassée for not listening to their boss.

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