The Life and Times of Bill Gates
William (Bill) Henry Gates III, chairman of the world’s largest software company Microsoft, is laying down office on June 27, 2008 as full-time chairman of Microsoft Corporation, to take up a full-time philanthropic role in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s a momentous occasion.
Not often one comes across a situation where an extremely successful and active CEO walks out of the primary function of heading a corporation to pursue one’s interests, particularly so in the case of Bill Gates who is not an ordinary CEO.
He founded the company along with his schoolmate Paul Allen, made it real big, had an outlandish vision of “putting a computer on each desk” (when computers were large and consumed most of the room space) and had the luck of realising that dream in his lifetime.
In the process, Gates managed to create not just a company but an industry, “the software industry” as we know it today. He also triggered the third wave of computing: mainframe era, minicomputer era to personal computing era.
Here’s looking into the journey of a geek who changed the tech world.
Born on October 28, 1955 to lawyer father and teacher mother in Seattle, Washington, Gates got a taste of computing in his school. Perhaps his first programme was the Tic-Tac-Toe game written in BASIC language on a GE computer.
Interestingly, Gates and three other high school students were banned from computer usage by Seattle-based CCC (Computer Center Corporation) after they were caught exploiting its operating system bugs to steal computer time. The brilliant student that he was, his SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) score in 1973 was a high 1590/1600.
He went to Harvard College, but dropped out to start Microsoft. Later in 2007, he was given an honorary degree by Harvard University. His Harvard classmate Steve Ballmer later became Microsoft CEO.
Inspired by an article in January 1975 issue of ‘Popular Electronics’ magazine, Gates decided to build a computer, betting on the power of micro-processors (Intel 8080 was around the corner). He saw the magic of software early in the game. An accident landed him a $80,000 IBM business contract, to develop an operating system (PCDOS initially and later MS-DOS).
Its phenomenal success took Microsoft to great heights. Microsoft continued to work with IBM on OS/2 operating system till 1991.
Started as Micro-soft at Albuquerque in New Mexico on November 16, 1976, Microsoft moved to Bellevue in Washington in January 1979, a bold move; most tech companies at that time would locate their operations in Boston area (Route 121) or Bay Area (Silicon Valley). The home town of its founders, Seattle, today is a high-tech hotspot and houses companies like Amazon, Real Networks and Starbucks.
Undoubtedly, Bill Gates has been a phenomenon. He has been featured in the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest people in the world for 15 years in a row between 1993 and 2007.
He has occupied the numero uno position in the list of richest people during 1995 to 2007. For a brief period in 1999, his net worth went past $100 billion, and new term “centibillionaire” was coined
Bill Gates’ key creation is Microsoft, a company with sales of $51 billion as of June 2007 with 78,000 employees across 105 countries. Almost 90 per cent of the estimated 1 billion computers (desktop and laptop) in the world are run on Microsoft’s Windows and Office. The company has products across the layers network, operating system, database, middleware, application software.
There are technologies that power handheld devices and smartphones, software services, hardware and entertainment devices like Tablet PC, XBox and IPTV technology. The launch of Windows on November 20, 1985, brought Microsoft into the mainstream system of software. Its Windows 95 launch on August 25 saw a marketing blitzkrieg worth $1 billion on the day of the launch.
Gates’ visits to India in 1997, 2000, 2002 and 2005 were historic, particularly his first visit to Mumbai. He spoke at the Government Leaders Forum — Asia in New Delhi in 2005.
He talked to IIT alumni during IIT-50 in Cupertino in the US in January 2003. He also championed the cause of H1-B visa that helps Indian software services companies.
Gates had the vision to invest in R&D. Microsoft Research created in 1997 (interestingly near Cambridge University in the UK under the guidance of the well-known cryptographer Roger Needham) has an annual budget of $7 billion today. The Indian arm of Microsoft Research started on January 15, 2005 in Bangalore is extremely active.
It is a coincidence that the fading away of the once mighty Bell Lab in the past decade was accompanied by the growth of the Bill Lab.
Gates delivered talks in prestigious universities around the world including Harvard, Stanford, MIT, UC Berkeley and University of Michigan in the US and Oxford & Cambridge in UK and in many countries of the world.
He also spoke at influential decision-makers forums like the World Economic Forum. Bill Gates is a prolific writer too. His ‘The Road Ahead’ (1994) and ‘Business @ the Speed of Light’ (1999) are New York Times best-sellers. He has written insightful and influential articles in Time magazine, Economist, Wall Street Journal, New York Times and IEEE/ACM magazines.
Gates’ success won him many laurels. Time magazine included him in the list of ‘100 People who influenced the 20th Century’.
BBC called him ‘The geek who changed the world’; Newsweek termed his departure as ‘Microsoft without Bill Gates? It does not compute’ and Business Week said ‘Gates’ glorious, qualified legacy’.
In recent years, Microsoft has not been doing all that well. Its stock price has remained flat for a decade at $28. The “browser war” that saw the decimation of Netscape led to an anti-trust move against Microsoft where Microsoft had to pay a heavy penalty in Europe.
Microsoft until recently was also opposed to the open source movement that is gaining momentum. Many in the industry also felt that Microsoft and Bill Gates were not following healthy business practices.
Bill Gates has been an avid reader and a prolific writer. One unusual habit that Bill Gates maintained for 20 years is his biannual ‘Think Week’ where he disappears into a retreat with none but a caretaker who “slips in two simple meals every day”, working 18 hours a day.
During this period Gates would carry nearly 100 papers authored by his employees that talk of trends, technologies and products that would influence the future of Microsoft.
Gates also used a practice of having a technology assistant selected from the best employees who did a two-year sabbatical in a role where they would provide continuous feed of ideas for him. IIT-Delhi educated Anoop Gupta (PhD from CMU and Stanford Professor for 11 years) was Gates’ technology assistant during 2001-2003.
American culture has a long tradition of philanthropy, as evidenced by the millions of dollars donated by individuals, who are not always very rich to universities in the country. Gates represents the height of such tradition.
Admirable indeed is the decision of Bill Gates and Melinda Gates to put most of their wealth (nearly $29 billion) into the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that has contributed nearly $287 million in one year towards AIDS control alone. Recently, Warren Buffet too has joined them, donating billions of dollars.
In the traditional Hindu way of living, one is expected to spend 25 years in childhood and learning (brahmacharya), 25 years in married life (grahastha), 25 years in social service (vanaprastha) and 25 years in renunciation (sanyas). Vanaprastha is interesting — one is active yet does not work for him/her family but for the society as whole.
Gates’ announcement of leaving his active role in Microsoft was made when he was exactly 50. He is also quoted as saying the whole thing about which operating system somebody uses is a pretty silly thing versus issues involving starvation and death.
Windows may not be the dominant operating system for ever. Its creator Gates may not even spend time worrying about the future releases of this product.
Yet, the man who created the product Windows, the company Microsoft and the PC industry created by Gates and Microsoft will leave an indelible footprint in the history of computing. By strategically morphing from software mogul to a super-efficient philanthropist, Gates is likely to scale new heights in his new avatar and leave an even deeper footprint in the annals of human history.
His new role in the next 30 years is only likely to be more significant than the three decades he spent in the making of Microsoft.