Don't Bet on Bill Gates Staying Retired
He'll be back.
It's a testament to how Bill Gates' image and fortunes have changed over the last few years that his departure from daily life at Microsoft today isn't being met with wailing and despair in Redmond, Washington — and cheers and high-fives everywhere else — but rather with a thoughtful appraisal of the man's career, and even a bit of nostalgia about the past.
This only underscores the wisdom that your enemies only praise you when they no longer fear you and the best PR only goes to the inconsequential.
A dozen years ago, this scenario would have been unimaginable. In those days, when Microsoft literally seemed an unstoppable force, destined to chew up and swallow Silicon Valley and the rest of the high tech world, the whispered conversations in tech boardrooms everywhere was: "How do we stay out of Gates' way long enough that he eats us last?"
In those days, Gates was the Antichrist of American Business, and Microsoft the Evil Empire. And worse, Bill Gates, with his knowing smile and nerdish cockiness, seemed to positively revel in that reputation. The world scrutinized everything about him — from his autistic-like tendency to rock back and forth when he was concentrating, to the highly competitive atmosphere of his childhood home life — and concluded that he was some kind of computer genius/land shark that could only survive by endlessly moving forward and attacking his prey.
So threatening was Bill Gates perceived to be that there was talk afoot, everywhere from the Valley to Washington to Brussels, that he had to be stopped, even if by extralegal means. Thus, Gates was hauled in front of Congress, where he was accused by other high tech executives and Microsoft was put on trial by the EU.
Microsoft was hardly innocent. Like Gates, the company reveled in playing hardball and bent a lot of corners to win. But the treatment of the company was both over the top and not commensurate with its perceived sins. And if we have conveniently forgotten most of this, one legacy of that witch-hunt will stand with us forever: more than anything, the sudden (as opposed to a slow) collapse of the dot.com boom in 2000 appears to have been precipitated by the loss of market confidence stemming from the Federal Government attacking a single commercial enterprise for no obvious reason other than that it was too successful.
As most of you know, I have never been an apologist for Gates or Microsoft. Indeed, it was in this very column four years ago that I was the first to declare "Microsoft RIP" -- and earned myself a firestorm of criticism in the process. Nor have I been a great fan of Microsoft's products over the years.
But that said, I am haunted by two events -- one public, one private -- involving Bill Gates.
The first was an appearance that Gates made on a Sunday Morning talk show near the end of the Nineties. When asked whether he could understand why the world feared Microsoft and thought it unstoppable, Bill replied that the history of high tech showed that no company, no matter how powerful and successful, could ever stay on top for long — and that someday, perhaps sooner rather than later, some other hot company would replace Microsoft at the top of the heap.
Needless to say, with the arrival of Google on the scene, that day arrived sooner than most of us thought. Gates, it turned out, was right. Somehow, in the midst of becoming the wealthiest, and in many ways the most feared, private citizen in the world, he had managed to keep some perspective. . .even as the rest of us had lost our heads.
The second event was more personal. I was in Redmond, interviewing Gates for public television series I hosted entitled Betting it All. It seemed like a good time for quick vacation, so I decided to take the family along, including Tad, who was then about nine, and Tim, just five. While I was filming Gates, I parked my wife and the two boys in the Green Room of the Microsoft studios, where they could snack and watch the shoot on the in-studio monitor.
The interview went very well, not least of all because I'd known Bill since he was about 19 — and thus was one of the people from the Old Days of personal computing, which he seemed to prefer. When the interview was completed, he was joined by his handlers, we did a quick goodbye, and he was ushered out.
But then an unexpected thing happened. Watching events unfolding on the monitor, my wife told my boys to go stand in the doorway and watch Gates pass by in the hallway. They did so. And as he rushed past, Gates suddenly spotted the two youngsters . . .and stopped in his tracks to talk with them. Unprompted, he asked them about school, holidays and how they like Seattle. Finally, almost reluctantly, he bid them goodbye. Afterwards, Tim, who had no idea who Bill Gates was, told me that he had met a "nice man."
From the mouths of babes . . .
Gates' intellectual arrogance, his knowing smile, his unmatched competence and his relentless competitiveness often made it seem that not only could he handle his notoriety, but he actually reveled in it. No personal insult, it seemed, could ever penetrate the hard shell of his self-confidence and ego.
But it should be apparent now that behind those defenses Bill Gates wasn't really much different from the rest of us. And as the years passed, especially after marriage and kids of his own, he got tired of being the Devil Incarnate, the living embodiment of Evil Capitalism. No doubt Melinda Gates had a lot to do with drawing Bill ever-deeper into philanthropy — but you can also imagine that he welcomed the change. Once the world got over its initial skepticism about his motives, the world began to embrace the new Bill Gates: Philanthropist.
We have seen all of this before. Throughout American history successful business tycoons have turned in their later careers (cynics might say to save their souls) to philanthropic endeavors. Look at Rockefeller and Carnegie. In the tech world, the gold standard was set by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard — two men whose careers Gates has always quietly emulated.
Being entrepreneurs at heart, tech tycoons also have a tendency to believe that it isn't enough to just give money to charity or set up foundations, but that they can find a better model for doing so. E-Bay's Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Skoll both thought that way a decade ago and pursued the idea of "social entrepreneurship." Sergey Brinn and Larry Page of Google are just the latest to follow this path.
Not surprisingly, Bill Gates also believes he can find a New Way to give away his money. And fittingly, as the man who set the operating system standard for the world's billion computers, Gates modeled his Foundation on a single, immense and categorical task: ending AIDS in Africa.
It was and is a noble goal. But cultures aren't operating systems, and communities are printed circuit boards. I've been to Africa enough to know that its problems won't be solved with vaccines or even "renewable" agriculture (the Gates Foundation's newest initiative) — at least not until corruption is kept in check, the "Big Man" syndrome fades away generations from now, educational infrastructure improves, and a few ruling Thugocracies get pulled down.
The awful truth that is probably dawning on Bill Gates is that the more he is lionized by the world, the more ineffectual he will likely become. Ahead lie awards and honors for his good works, but it is the big bad works behind him at Microsoft where Gates really changed the world. Microsoft Windows, combined with the Intel x86 processor, made the personal computer revolution possible — and thus created the modern Internet. The Net in turn increased human freedom around the planet, increased productivity, extended educational opportunities to those heretofore left out, and enhanced commerce in the developing world. In the last few years, more people in the world have escaped the worst kind of poverty than at any time in history.
Bill Gates played a crucial role in this modern revolution of freedom and prosperity -- not by being a philanthropist doing good works, but by being a ruthless businessman pursuing maximum market share.
If Bill Gates is as smart as we all think he is, this truth will dawn on him someday. Perhaps it already has — suggested by his recent speech about using charity for 'creative capitalism.' Still, it must be nice to bathe for a while in the admiration of people who once hated you.
I give him five years — enough for the Foundation to have some successes (but few victories), and long enough for his new image to become permanent. Then I predict that Bill Gates, the ultimate entrepreneur, will get back into the game. And probably to lead a dying Microsoft back from the grave.