Better for Gates not to have taken the money than giving it back as charity

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 July, 2010, 12:00am

And finally a suspicion lingers, slowly fading but still there, that the foundation's activities are some sort of penance for [Bill] Gates' world-dominating behaviour at Microsoft

Post Magazine, July 25

I remember seeing that behaviour emerge 30 or so years ago, shortly after I acquired my first computer, a knock-off Apple 2, which was branded 'Medfly' (a plague of Mediterranean fruit flies had just infested Californian apple orchards at the time).

It was a blindingly fast machine (4.7 megahertz), had a huge memory for that time (48 kilobytes) and came with two of those ultra-new floppy disk drives to replace cassette tapes. If you pulled off the top you could put in something called an 80-column card. This allowed 80 characters across the screen instead of the Apple 2's 40, and then you could also run an operating system called CP/M. Wow!

Some time later, the big giant soon to become dwarf of the industry, IBM, followed up with its own microcomputer running an operating system from a company called Microsoft.

Micro who? Isn't microsoft a decal-softening agent for plastic model airplane kits?

There was no puzzle about the operating system, however. It was CP/M. Microsoft had done nothing new. It just bought the rights to something else in the market, made a few tweaks and called the thing its own.

This set the trend. There may be one or two truly original bits of software that this company has to its credit, but I can't think of any offhand. All the ideas, from Windows to Office Suite to the internet browser to the games packages, were first thought up by others and then Microsoft just bought them or copied them - an ideas company bereft of new ideas.

But never really an ideas company, anyway. It was always more of a single-client law firm with a singular focus on copyright law. Microsoft's big break was that IBM allowed it to keep separate rights to the original operating software. It eventually turned this into Windows, taking acute care all the way not to step on IBM's legal toes. Microsoft's genius lies in law.

Its strength meanwhile has been the Department of State, an arm of the US government, which operates on the principle that Americans may trample on other people's laws but other people will abide strictly by America's, whether or not America has jurisdiction and particularly if it involves money on which Americans may lay their hands.

This, in short, is how Bill Gates became the world's richest man for so many years.

And while he may have worn that wealth reasonably well, this is hardly something you would say of Microsoft's ostentatious co-founder, Paul Allen, and his gargantuan yachts.

But Microsoft's weaknesses have begun to tell on it now. Releases of new software are accompanied with finger-crossing gestures about bug-ridden older versions, its Zune answer to Apple's iTunes has become a joke, and Apple has now outstripped it in market capitalisation.

I still use Windows on my laptop, but the kids have long abandoned it and laugh at me for sticking with it. They moved my wife to an Apple machine recently and told her she would find things much easier. She did.

You might even say that Gates has abandoned it. His concentration is now on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It has become the world's largest private charity and one of its more assertive ones.

But does it really represent Gates paying penance for world-dominating behaviour at Microsoft?

I doubt it. He doesn't strike me as the sort of person to do penance for his career.

He is a technocrat enamoured of all that can be done with microprocessor technology and probably not aware that he is in danger of becoming a sorcerer's apprentice through the wealth he has derived from it.

But the foundation does have its detractors. It is too heavily focused on vaccines and drugs, they say, its grants are made too casually and it has a fragmenting or duplicating influence on other charity initiatives.

I would put it differently. I think it is impossible to distribute a sum of tens of billions of dollars equitably to improve the living circumstances of the world's needy. Inevitably it will be done as a bureaucracy with achievement targets that are chosen more because they can be measured than because the achievements are worthwhile.

The beneficiaries will be those who can be made to fit a PowerPoint presentation in the foundation's Seattle headquarters. If you can't adapt yourself to the heading of a column on the spreadsheet, bye-bye to you.

In other words, Bill, instead of amassing a huge hoard of money through the muscle of American copyright law and then giving it back as charity, perhaps you might have done better not to have taken the money from people in the first place. That might have produced just the distribution your foundation now wants.