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The Softening of a Software Man

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In 2000, Gates stepped down as CEO and assumed his current title: chairman and chief software architect. The official line at Microsoft was that he was reenergized, reinvigorated, up to his elbows in the company’s future, shepherding new products and formulating new strategies. But by the time I saw him a couple of years later at a conference in California, it was clear to all in the auditorium that software no longer got Gates’s juices pumping the way his work at the foundation did. Technology questions were answered quickly, without passion, whereas questions about global health elicited lengthy disquisitions full of detail and emotion. The way he talked about wiping out malaria was how he used to talk about wiping out Netscape.

Ever since then, Microsoft has noticeably been drifting. Not that the company isn’t still enormously profitable and doesn’t exercise terrific clout in the markets where its products are entrenched. But there’s no escaping the impression of an outfit beset by strategic blurriness and lumbering middle age—or disguising the fact that, despite countless fervent if flailing efforts, Microsoft is getting its ass kicked handily in the race to rule the Internet. Here you have Yahoo, trouncing MSN as an all-purpose Web portal. And there you have Apple, crushing it in online music. Here you have poor, doom-struck AOL, beating it in e-mail and instant messaging. And there, most glaringly, you have Google, whipping Gates’s company in Web search and advertising—and the crucial competition for top-drawer talent.

Nowhere is Microsoft’s decline more keenly felt (or warmly welcomed) than in Silicon Valley. “Ten years ago,” observes Joe Kraus, one of the founders of Excite, “if you were starting up a company, you assumed that Microsoft already had ten engineers working full-time on the same thing, and they were probably going to eat your lunch. But you don’t say that anymore about Microsoft. You say it about Google. They’re the 10,000-pound gorilla now.”

For Gates, then, losing out on the AOL deal to Google—a deal he’d personally been involved in negotiating, courting Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons at last year’s Allen & Co. summer retreat in Sun Valley—would have been all the more painful for what it represents. For 25 years after Microsoft’s founding in 1975, Gates labored furiously to see that his company would escape the fate that befell his archrival IBM, along with every other technology outfit that rose to dominance in one era, then slid into senescence in the next. Yet now he sees his precious baby veering dangerously in the direction of becoming the new Big Blue: large, profitable, and stuffed with happy employees, but feared or followed by no one. Unimportant, in a word.

Rockefeller’s life traces essentially the same arc on which Gates appears to be traveling.

Gates’s consolation is that his opportunity to be a transformational figure isn’t lost with Microsoft’s abeyance. This is not a trivial thing. Gates has already changed the world once; now, through his foundation—which is not only disgorging a gusher of funds but inventing a new model for philanthropy, driven by statistics, leverage, and an insistence on accountability—he has a chance to do it again. And as Bono told Time, “The second act for Bill Gates may be the one that history regards more.”

Which brings us back to J. D. Rockefeller. Now, Gates and Rockefeller are very different animals in many respects—starting with Rockefeller’s devout Baptism (Gates has never emitted any visible sign of believing in any omnipotent being other than himself). But with respect to philanthropy, Rockefeller’s life essentially limns the arc on which Gates appears to be traveling. After a career in which he was accused of a panoply of predatory behavior, Rockefeller retired in 1910—a year before the Supreme Court voted to break up Standard Oil, but, interestingly, a few years after its market share began to shrink—and devoted himself to good works, notably the founding of the Rockefeller Foundation, which was as much an innovator in its time as the Gates Foundation is today. By the time of his death, in 1937, Rockefeller had attained an image in the public mind of a kind of secular saint. Today he’s remembered as much for his acts of charity as for his earlier acts of commercial treachery.

As precedents go, it’s a heartening one for William Henry Gates III. Although, as I said, I’d wager big money that he doesn’t see it that way. Above all, Gates would probably object that there’s no way Microsoft is in danger of being rent asunder these days. And he’d be dead right—because the company, by and large, has ceased to be a menace to anyone. That itself might pain Gates to hear, though in truth he should see it as a blessing. For if Microsoft were still the Beast from Redmond circa 1997, there’s not a chance in hell he’d be a Person of the Year, let alone one that Time would have ever seen fit to label a “Good Samaritan.”

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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