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The Scotsman: Billionaire, benefactor … but is Bill Gates a force for good?

Bill Gates

EXTRACT: An investigation of companies in which the foundation invests £16.8 billion led to accusations that it was profiting from firms whose activities contribute to the problems, such as poverty, debt and disease, that it was trying to solveIN EARLY January an investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that the foundation had invested over £254 million in oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Total, whose practices are being blamed for causing health concerns in Nigeria; problems the Gates Foundation is contributing money to solve.

THE ARTICLE

STEPHEN MCHINTY
 ([email protected])

THE richest man on earth can afford to travel light. Bill Gates, the founder and chairman of Microsoft, arrived in Edinburgh yesterday afternoon, in a people carrier with a single security guard. He may have lacked the personal protection of princes and prime ministers, yet the tall, diffident man in the dark, pinstriped suit and maroon tie is arguably more powerful than either.

At Bute House, the First Minister’s official home, Gates demonstrated his influence by dispensing largess: 100,000 Scots not in education or employment would be trained in computer skills in a partnership between Microsoft and the Scottish Executive.

The global scale he operates on made him dismiss a question on Scottish independence as if it were inconsequential. Still, at least he is punctual. Journalists were briefed that a press conference would last 14 minutes and he departed just 19 seconds late, to collect an honorary degree at Edinburgh University before attending a private meeting with Ian Wilmut, the scientist who led the team that created Dolly the Sheep, for a cosy conversation on biotechnology.

So just how much power does this man have? When asked to respond to the brickbats that Microsoft is too powerful for an unelected corporation, Gates responded: “Governments have the power over all the key social issues. Microsoft is in a very competitive environment.

“Every few years people tell us we are going to bust and it is true if we do not redesign our products and do great things, we will be replaced.”

The latest “great thing” is the launch yesterday of Vista, the new version of the Windows operating system, which after an investment of £3 billion, the company hopes will continue its dominance of the market with 100 million computers expected to use it by 2008.

Bill Gates, who has a personal net worth of $53 billion (£27bn), no longer lives in a binary world of 1 and 0, on or off, black or white, yet there are those who insist on viewing him in the stark terms of good or bad. The case for the defence of “saint” Bill is the remarkable growth of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is the Microsoft of charities – the largest transparently operated charitable foundation in the world.

Launched by Gates with a donation of £54 million in 2000, it has since swollen to an endowment of £17 billion, and each year donates a minimum of £764 million to a wide variety of agencies and charities.

The foundation’s primary purpose is to enhance healthcare and reduce extreme poverty in the Third World, and it has focused on the eradication of malaria and the development of a vaccine against AIDS. In America, Gates has directed resources towards assisting minorities into education, with a $1 billion grant to the United Negro College Fund as well as funding better access to information technology.

WITH its headquarters in Seattle and branch offices in Washington and New York, the charity is not another idle toy for the wealthiest man in the world. Gates has made clear it is his future. In July 2008, Gates will step down from his day-to-day role at Microsoft and step up his already considerable involvement with the foundation.

The business suit and the boardroom is quickly being replaced by khaki trousers, blue button-down Gap shirts and the field trip, as Gates travels across Africa and India visiting aid projects. A goal he has set himself is to bring his analytical mind and hard-headed business practice to bear on the global problems of poverty and ill-health.

Those poorly prepared for meetings with the foundation emerge shredded by his persistent and lacerating questions.

He is also credited with making philanthropy chic and inspiring Warren Buffett, the second-richest man in the world, to donate shares worth £15 billion, which will eventually double the endowment to over £30 billion.

The reformation of Bill Gates from computer geek to charity pin-up – joining Bono on the cover of Time magazine as Humanitarian of the Year and being voted eighth in the list of “Heroes of Our Time” by the New Statesman – does not, however, convince those critics who continue to view him, in the jargon of Star Wars, as “the dark side of the Force”.

Microsoft business practices have been described as “unethical” and “anti-competitive” and were severely criticised in 1998 by a US judge who found the company guilty of monopolisation and blocking competition. Gates’s own testimony, in which he argued over the meaning of words such as “compete”, “concerned”, “ask” and “we”, was deemed to be an insight into his belligerent and bullying tactics in the boardroom. Employees say he has been known to shout lines such as: “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard” and, most ironically given his new role: “Why don’t you just give up your [stock] options and join the Peace Corps?” Particularly grating to programmers struggling to overcome a complex problem was: “Do you want me to do it over the weekend?”

The Microsoft campus in Washington state employs over 28,000 staff in what has been described as a “velvet sweatshop”, where “Microserfs” compete to pull the longest working shifts and then bed down on cots underneath their desks. Still, the financial compensation of stock options, which can be worth millions for senior staff, remains an attraction.

The tactics that Microsoft has adopted to remain the No1 player in the computer world have been characterised as “embrace, extend and extinguish” in that it “embraces” a competing product, “extends” its capability and then “extinguishes” it by creating its own incompatible version.

Yesterday Microsoft released its latest operating system, Vista. That was immediately criticised by the Green Party, which said the design erodes consumer rights, forces the user to invest in expensive and environmentally damaging hardware upgrades and restricts the potential for information technology.

Patrick Harvie, the Green MSP for Glasgow, said: “There will be thousands of tonnes of dumped monitors, video cards and whole computers that are perfectly capable of meeting users’ needs if they can use free software instead of Vista.

“Microsoft is trying to dictate the way that video content is delivered in order to corner the market.”

To some, Bill Gates is the epitome of Big Brother: a man whose ubiquitous computer systems, according to Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, are planned to “make your computer obey them instead of you”. Yet, recently, it has been Gates’s philanthropy that has come under attack, leading him to ponder that no good deed should go unpunished.

An investigation of companies in which the foundation invests £16.8 billion led to accusations that it was profiting from firms whose activities contribute to the problems, such as poverty, debt and disease, that it was trying to solve.

IN EARLY January an investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that the foundation had invested over £254 million in oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Total, whose practices are being blamed for causing health concerns in Nigeria; problems the Gates Foundation is contributing money to solve.

In a letter to the newspaper, Patty Stonesifer, chief executive of the foundation, said “changes in our investment practices would have little or no impact” on the suffering in the report.

Today Bill Gates will talk to Gordon Brown at the Microsoft Government Leaders’ Forum, at Holyrood. After travelling the world he still found words of praise for Scotland, but yesterday issued a challenge.

He said: “Scotland is known for a long history of innovation, being involved in business enterprise and top educational institutions.

“It has a good reputation for governance that focuses on business opportunity. Scotland is doing its part to tell its story, but competition for places to do business nowadays is very high.

“Scotland has done well if you look at the employment rate of people who have a good education. Education is going to keep it in a good position.”

GATES ON
POVERTY
“Is the rich world aware of how four billion of the world’s six billion live? If we were aware, we would want to help out, we’d want to get involved. We need to get this new generation drawn into philanthropy”

BUSINESS
“Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning”

MISTAKES
“Sometimes we do get taken by surprise. For example, when the internet came along we had it as a fifth or sixth priority”

KNOWLEDGE
“Information technology and business are becoming inextricably interwoven. I don’t think anybody can talk meaningfully about one without the talking about the other”

THE PC
“Personal computers have become the most empowering tool we have ever created. They are tools of communication, they are tools of creativity … and they can be shaped by their user”

THE WORLD ON GATES

“The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste, they have absolutely no taste – I don’t mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way – and what that means is they don’t think of original ideas and they don’t bring much culture into their product”
Apple boss Steve Jobs

“Gates is the ultimate programming machine. He believes everything can be defined, examined, reduced to essentials, and rearranged into a logical sequence that will achieve a particular goal”
Political analyst Stewart Alsop

“It’s a business I don’t know anything about, but I admire Bill Gates enormously. I know him individually, and I think he is incredible in business”
Tycoon Warren Buffett

“The idea that Bill Gates has appeared like a knight in shining armour to lead all customers out of a mire of technological chaos neatly ignores the fact that it was he who, by peddling second-rate technology, led them into it in the first place”
Author Douglas Adams

“Probably the most dangerous and powerful industrialist of our age”
Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems

http://news.scotsman.com/scotland.cfm?id=161002007

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