*Suppose your time is so valuable it’s not worth your while to bend down and pick up $10,000 off the street.* You live in Nirvana, buried in an ‘earth-sheltered’ burrow near Seattle – reputedly the most expensive residence in the world. It houses extensive writings in the hand of Leonardo da Vinci and a rare Gutenberg Bible. The only ugly monsters around you are, unsurprisingly, green with envy.
William Henry Gates III was born in 1955 to a wealthy family. He went to the most expensive private schools. At the age of 17 he was arrested for a stop-sign violation. But he was also a member of the Boy Scouts of America and became a Life Scout. While still at school he and Paul Allen founded a company which sold traffic-flow data systems to state governments.
He enrolled at Harvard University in 1973, where he met his future business partner, Steve Ballmer. Gates contacted Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), the creators of a new microcomputer, and told them that he and others had developed a programming language for their platform. This was not true. But within a few weeks Allen and Gates slapped something together and struck a deal with MITS. Gates promptly abandoned Harvard to found Micro-Soft with Allen.
In 1980 IBM, which dominated the computer hardware business, decided to build a desktop personal computer. It needed an operating system. Microsoft did not have one. True to form, when IBM failed to strike a deal with Digital Research – which did have one – Gates offered to fill the gap. He then licensed a system from Seattle Computer Products for $56,000 and IBM shipped it as PC-DOS. It turned out to be the most profitable deal in history.
Microsoft went on to produce Windows, which was similar to Apple’s Macintosh – both were based on the human-interface work at Xerox PARC. Though Windows was inferior, Gates concentrated on getting it pre-installed on new personal computers. Microsoft became the largest software company in the world as a result, eventually controlling 95 per cent of the global market.
Keeping his own systems locked away behind codes, Gates has done his utmost to sabotage potential rivals, particularly ‘open source’ software, which is often both free and superior. Meanwhile, Microsoft has faced a series of ‘antitrust’ prosecutions. In 2004 the European Union imposed a fine of over $700 million – the largest financial penalty on record.
Gates’ personal fortune is based on the size of Microsoft profits, which in turn derive from the corporation’s monopolistic position. He regularly tours the world to shore up the Trade Related Intellectual Property (TRIPs) agreements promoted by the World Trade Organization, which Microsoft needs in order to sustain its position. By the mid-1990s his fortune had soared beyond the $50 billion mark and Gates had established himself as the wealthiest individual in the world. He has remained so ever since – even after 2000, when he decided to give half of it away.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation immediately became the wealthiest endowment in history, unlike anything since the days of the robber barons Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller a century ago. Its initial donations promoted Microsoft-related products in education and public libraries in the US. But then – some say as a result of his partner Melinda’s influence – it branched out to become the world’s largest single private source of finance for research into vaccines, AIDS and malnutrition. This work has received some justifiable praise.
Its future now relies, however, on a monopolistic corporation in which cracks are beginning to appear. Microsoft’s next operating system, Vista, has already been called ‘banal’ by some commentators and taken fully four years to develop. Its long-awaited launch has been delayed until 2007. With the rapidly changing dynamics of the internet, Google has become a more agile operator, while open-source software is more readily accessible.
The prospects for millions of lives may now, indeed, depend upon the future of Microsoft and the whims of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Given their track record, both are likely to make the most of it. Gates’ eighth appearance on the cover of Time magazine since 1984 was with Melinda and the U2 lead singer Bono, jointly hailed as ‘Persons of the Year 2005’ for their charitable endeavours. The day when these exceed in value what Microsoft makes from the fees it collects for its software, even if only from the Majority World, will be the day when Bill Gates’ humanitarian credentials are beyond question.