Bill Gates: the rebooting of a reputation

Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates was once widely criticised as a merciless monopolist. But he has tried to reinvent himself as a global health philanthropist. The coronavirus crisis is his biggest challenge yet.

“The only thing that keeps me awake at night is the thought of a pandemic,” Bill Gates told The Times a year ago. “It’s been 100 years since we had a huge flu epidemic.” So now that his “worst nightmare has come true”, Gates has thrown the huge resources of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (set up “to eradicate diseases”) into the fight against Covid-19 – cementing his image as the world’s most can-do philanthropist. 

Routinely described by younger tech moguls as “a visionary role model”, Gates, 64, has seen “several reboots of his public image”, since becoming a billionaire at the age of 31, says The Wall Street Journal. Has this merciless monopolist found his calling as the selfless saviour of the world?   

The child is the father of the man

As a child, Gates’ two favourite games were Risk (where the object is world domination) and Monopoly, says Entrepreneur. He and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen first went into business while still at school in the early 1970s, developing a program called Traf-O-Data to measure traffic flow in the Seattle area. That netted them the not-inconsequential sum of $20,000. 

In 1973, Gates headed for Harvard. “By his own admission he was there in body but not in spirit, preferring to spend his time playing poker and video games.” So by 1975, he had dropped out to develop a version of BASIC, a popular computer language, for the Altair 8800, the world’s first microcomputer. Gates and Allen went on to write code for other start-ups, including Apple and Tandy. 

They hit the jackpot in 1979 when Gates learned that the industry’s biggest player, IBM, lacked an operating system for its new PC. Microsoft bought an existing OS for $50,000, developed it into MS-DOS and licensed it to IBM. The “genius” of the deal Gates masterminded, says Entrepreneur, was that Microsoft retained the right to license the software to other computer makers. The market was soon packed with IBM clones and Microsoft cleaned up. The release of Word in 1983 then captured the market for office software. Three years later Microsoft went public and Gates retained a sizeable stake – setting him up for a reign as the world’s richest man from 1995 to 2007. 

Defending dominance

“The aggressive business tactics” and “ruthless determination” Gates showed as he created markets and fought to defend Microsoft’s dominance over them (ably aided by his bull-like lieutenant Steve Ballmer), “attracted a vast army of critics”, observed a contemporary BBC profile. Gates became “a hate figure for many technology evangelists” who railed against Microsoft’s bulldozing, monopolistic ways. That has faded as he sat back and allowed Satya Nadella to lead a newly “ethical” Microsoft into cloud computing, where it has shone. But he still attracts trenchant opposition.

Gates has discovered that the easiest path to political power – “one that allows unelected billionaires to shape public policy in ways that almost always generate favourable headlines” –  is “charity”, argues The Nation. Maybe so – but in this climate, that seems almost nit-picking. As Gates said last week, the fight against the virus is like a world war, “except in this case we’re all on the same side”.

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