The meaning of Bill

(This is a post The Guardian’s Comment is Free asked me to write about Bill Gates — thus the view from that side of the world. If you’d like to comment, please do so at Comment is Free.)

In America, we, too, have our class system, though it is a perverse version that admires and distrusts bigness in equal measure. We celebrate everyone’s opportunity to rise to the top, but once they’ve arrived, we treat them the way you in London dealt with David Blaine dangling from above: as a target. Witness Bill Gates, who announced Thursday that he will retire from daily duties at Microsoft to shift his attention to his giving away his $50 billion. Gates embodies the great American paradox.

My teenage son and webmaster, Jake, a computer genius (if you’ll allow me a link of paternal pride) since the age of 3, has admired and even idolized Gates for giving him the tools he loved, tools that empowered and taught him and helped shape his way of thinking. As a child, Jake didn’t understand the business story that also made Gates the object of fear and fighting not just from competitors but from entire continents. Perhaps Gates’ adversaries did not understand it either.

Gates was merely the best businessman ever born. He was ruthless. But capitalism is ruthless. It is a system. And it is that system — not his operating systems — that made Gates so damned big. Gates was not an inventor and innovator and I’ll argue that — his prognosticating books aside — he was no visionary. He was an exploiter. His first product was another version of the Basic programming language. His master stroke was taking the essence of a now-forgotten operating system called CP/M and turning it into MS-DOS, the neurology of the personal-computer revolution. He took the tool that truly created the technology age, VisiCalc — the spreadsheet that let business people ask “what if?”, which is what put computers on every office desk in the world — and turned it into Excel, part of his Office suite that also included Word, which itself was really just an adaptation of WordStar. He took the art of the Apple Lisa and Mac and turned it into the clumsy painting-on-velvet, Windows. Gates took others’ innovations and turned them into products and profits. Every great invention needs a business genius to bring it to market. For software, that was Gates.

But then came the internet, the great invention that by its very open essence defies productization. In spite of government fears in the U.S. and the EU — and try as he might — Gates couldn’t take it over and exploit it. This was not his only failure. Gates tried to become a media mogul — in a local listings service, in a news magazine, in a TV network, and in a web portal — but that eluded him. In an era when everyone can now master media, Gates could not. So perhaps this is indeed the end of the Gates era. And if anyone is smart and ruthless enough to know that, it’s probably Gates.

I saw the news about Gates on my phone yesterday at the end of a roundtable on copyright, patent law, internet neutrality, and media ownership held by a bunch of venture capitalists, who invited the legal brains> who are trying to defend the growing remix culture enabled by technology from the armed fortresses of rights laws. The irony, I think, is that Gates was the extreme remixer, taking ideas and inventions and turning them into the business models that let them spread. He didn’t take over the world; he helped technology take over the world.

During the session — as the table fretted about the phone-and-cable duopoly taking over and threatening to throttle the internet — a veteran patent attorney reminded the room of the days when we all thought Bill Gates would rule the globe because nothing would stop him. But the truth is that all monopolies fall; it’s just a question of when. Will Microsoft fall now? As (full disclosure) a stockholder, I hope not. And I don’t think it will. Gates had installed an even more ruthless capitalist, Steve Ballmer, as head of his company and brought in a visionary, Ray Ozzie, to take over his role as provocateur. Microsoft, as Gates himself said yesterday, is a corporation, not a person. Was he the evil monopolist? Or is another company that has vowed not to be evil now in an even stronger and more dangerous position to become a monopoly?

I met Gates once, when I wrote for People magazine and they had decided he was one of the year’s 25 Most Intriguing People (you have knighthoods, we have this). I went along with a top editor to translate geek (in which I was conversant if not fluent) into tabloid (which was the editor’s mother tongue). Gates was every bit as awkward as I’d heard — fidgety and eye-averting — and if he deserves credit for any great cultural change, it is probably for the geekification of a generation. Yet he was also charming — that is, his enthusiasm and firm belief in the power of technology was utterly engaging.

In the ’90s, we heard frequent complaints that the technology rich were not sharing their wealth like the robber barons of yore. Yet now Gates is turning his attention to his philanthropy. That is his personal paradox: he ruthlessly earned those billions and now generously gives them away. Yes, he has a heart. Gates, as it turns out, is a man, not a machine.