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”.

Recommended

Moderna’s Stéphane Bancel: the maths nerd who struck vaccine gold
People

Moderna’s Stéphane Bancel: the maths nerd who struck vaccine gold

A decade ago, Stéphane Bancel took a gamble and joined a fledgling start-up working on an unproven new technology. The gamble paid off with the rise o…
17 Apr 2021
Will Shu: Deliveroo CEO and its first delivery rider
People

Will Shu: Deliveroo CEO and its first delivery rider

City analyst Will Shu was sick of working long hours at Canary Wharf and having to make do with what was left on the shelf in Tesco for dinner. So he …
10 Apr 2021
John and Patrick Collison: the nerds who conquered Silicon Valley
People

John and Patrick Collison: the nerds who conquered Silicon Valley

John and Patrick Collison, a genial pair of young Irish brothers from a humble background, had a simple idea – to launch the next PayPal. Just ten yea…
3 Apr 2021
AstraZeneca’s Pascal Soriot: in the crossfire of the vaccine wars
People

AstraZeneca’s Pascal Soriot: in the crossfire of the vaccine wars

AstraZeneca’s boss Pascal Soriot was winning plaudits for his stewardship when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Since then, he’s been having a hard time …
27 Mar 2021

Most Popular

China owns a lot more gold than it’s letting on – and here’s why
Gold

China owns a lot more gold than it’s letting on – and here’s why

In a world awash with money-printing, a currency backed by gold would have great credibility. And China – with designs on the yuan becoming the world’…
21 Apr 2021
“Joke” cryptocurrency dogecoin goes to the moon. What’s going on?
Bitcoin

“Joke” cryptocurrency dogecoin goes to the moon. What’s going on?

Dogecoin – a cryptocurrency created as a joke – has risen by more than 9,000% this year alone. Saloni Sardana looks at how something that began as an …
19 Apr 2021
House prices in the UK are still surging – here’s why it’ll probably continue
Property

House prices in the UK are still surging – here’s why it’ll probably continue

The latest UK house price data shows no letup in the country’s booming property market, with the biggest yearly rise since 2014. And there’s no end in…
22 Apr 2021