On this date in 1976, American business magnate and philanthropist Bill Gates published an “Open Letter to Hobbyists” in the Homebrew Computer Club Newsletter.
At the time Microsoft, the software company that Bill Gates founded with his friend Paul Allen, was just one year old. The company’s revenues in its first year were a little over $16,000. Microsoft was off to a promising start, however, having developed software for the Altair 8800 microcomputer, the first commercially successful personal computer.
The issue that sparked Gates’ open letter was one of the earliest cases of software piracy. Gates complained in the letter that users of his Altair BASIC software, which in an era before floppy disks was distributed on paper, were making unauthorized copies. He implored the computer hobbyists to think about the consequences of their actions — that professional developers could not continue to stay in business if people did not pay for the product. Gates actual words in the letter were both accusatory and sarcastic:
As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid? (1).
Although Gates’ letter didn’t result in many hobbyists paying up, Gates and his company were able to recover their losses and build a profitable company. With the launch of its first version of Windows in 1985, Microsoft was on its way to becoming one of the world’s most valuable companies.
Bill Gates’ open letter is just one of many examples of this unique genre of communications. What makes the open letter interesting as a form is its dual audience: the addressee and the general public. The content of an open letter is targeted at a specific individual or group, yet the letter is published in an “open” public forum. One of the most famous open letters ever written, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” was itself written in response to another open letter. In his letter dated April 16, 1963, King was responding to a letter published in the Birmingham Post-Herald in which eight Alabama clergyman challenge his presence in Alabama and his strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism.
Since the advent of the World Wide Web, which went public on August 6, 1991, everyone has a platform to publish their open letters.
Today’s Challenge: Open Your Heart in an Open Letter
Who or what might you send an open letter to? Write an open letter to a person, group, or thing expressing your concerns, your criticism, or your praise. There are all kinds of creative possibilities. Brainstorm some possibilities based on the ideas below:
-An open letter to your future or past self
-An open letter to an abstract idea, a concrete object, or a place
-An open letter with constructive criticism or effusive praise for a public figure or group
-A humorous or satiric open letter to a group, celebrity, trend, or other idea.
Once you have your idea, write your letter. Remember to address the specific addressee (the person or thing you’re writing to), but also consider the general audience that will be reading your letter. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
Quotation of the Day: It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure. –Bill Gates