Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has a new memoir out, and as part of his press tour, he and Bill Gates gave a joint interview to The Wall Street Journal. Gates is, of course, most famous for being able to jump over an office chair from a standing position, and also for having co-founded a world-changing computing company and being the richest person in the world.
The whole interview is good, if light — it may surprise you to learn this, but these two extremely wealthy and successful businessmen are smart and articulate. But this particular question (and Gates’s answer) stuck out:
SS: Bill, what’s different about the landscape Satya faces now, as opposed to when you were CEO?
BG: Well, the company is more complicated. We have more products. And the competition — there are four other gigantic companies and 200 other important companies. There was once a period of time, believe it or not, when money was limited. Your competitors actually had limited money, and if they couldn’t sell much in the way of products they couldn’t keep large development teams. Now, because of the belief in this field, the start-up money and super-profitable products, companies can go and spend huge amounts of money. And for the customer it means the speed of innovation across all these different companies is incredible.
SN: I mean, there’s never been a period, I guess, when there were three of us spending north of $10 billion in tech on research and development. Like $12 billion — Amazon is spending that, Google is spending that, we are spending that.
BG: And Apple and Facebook a little bit less. But they have infinite resources. They could afford to. Who knows why they’re not?
A couple of things jump out from this exchange. Firstly, there’s Gates’s acknowledgment of “four other gigantic companies” — that is, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. These five corporations are widely acknowledged as the most dominant companies in the tech industry, and while it’s not rare to hear an executive of one brag about the size of his company, it is a bit irregular to hear companies acknowledge how small the playing field is, how dominant they are, and how few threats they face.
Secondly, Gates talks about these companies having “infinite resources” for R&D. He’s not exaggerating by much — these companies are almost incomprehensibly wealthy. But more importantly, having resources for R&D at that scale places them in an almost unchallengeable position within the market: Who can compete on new technology?
Gates isn’t saying anything that isn’t very clear to anyone paying attention. But he’s also one of very few tech executives who’s faced an actual antitrust lawsuit. It’s hard not to wonder what he thinks of the increasingly loud accusations of anti-competitive activity faced by the four other companies in Microsoft’s coterie — especially since, as he admits openly, they operate on a very small playing field with inexhaustible funding and resources, which allow them to gobble up minor players, snuff them out, or at least keep them fenced in.