Farewell Bill Gates
Bill Gates is unusual for not only making a mark on the world, but for making three of them. To PC users, he’s most famous for Windows, which has dominated personal computing for 15 years. Among the general public, he’s famous for being one of the world’s richest men, with a net worth that once exceeded $100 billion. Now he’s focusing on his next great endeavour, which is not only to be the world’s greatest philanthropist, but to transform philanthropy through modern business techniques. One day, millions of people might owe him their lives.
All these things are related, of course, but none was inevitable. Plenty of programmers have developed market-leading software without achieving Bill Gates’ success in business. There are plenty of multibillionaires with a rich diet of fast cars, private jets and football clubs, but they don’t devote their time and money to saving the lives of Third World children.
That’s what Gates will be doing from July. Two years ago, he announced he was going to stop devoting around 80% of his time to Microsoft and 20% to his charitable foundation, and do it the other way round. He’ll still be chairman of Microsoft and its largest shareholder, and will continue working on pet projects. But he’ll be giving up the job he loves in order to do something he now considers more important.
The Gates dynasty
Nobody who spotted the tousle-haired young programmer on the side streets of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1975 would have predicted his future. It depended on Gates taking a string of high-risk bets and winning almost all of them. One of the first was dropping out of Harvard to follow the dream of a PC industry that had barely been born. If he hadn’t, you would probably be reading instead about William Henry Gates III, a distinguished Seattle lawyer, just like his father.
As the name suggests, Gates was born into a well-to-do family. His mother, Mary Maxwell Gates, was a director of First Interstate Bank and the United Way charity. Young William was a keen boy scout, and went to Lakeside, an exclusive prep school in Seattle, which gave him a head start in the computer business. At the time, most young teens wouldn’t have had any direct contact with computers, but the Lakeside mothers raised the money to buy a Teletype terminal and computer time on a remote machine. Gates became hooked on programming, taking the time to read and learn from the source code of the programs he was using (open source advocates may well note the irony here).
Gates wasn’t just a talented programmer, he was a commercial one. Information Sciences Inc was impressed enough to hire some Lakeside students to write a payroll program in COBOL, and when he was 14 Gates and his friend Paul Allen launched a company called Traf-O-Data to perform automated traffic counting. They reportedly earned $20,000 in their first year.
That commercial instinct was also evident after Microsoft was founded in 1975. Gates and Allen got into the business by writing a version of the BASIC language for the MITS Altair computer, which they’d never seen. It worked and MITS hired Allen, while Gates dropped out of Harvard and moved to Albuquerque, where MITS was based. Gates soon noticed that many hobbyists were using copies of his BASIC interpreter without paying for it. In February 1976, he wrote an open letter to hobbyists accusing them of theft. “Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid? Is this fair?” Gates asked, rhetorically. “Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?”