Born: October 28, 1955
Cofounder and chairman, Microsoft Corporation
The title "richest man in the world" suggests power and influence, along with vast wealth. Bill Gates, whose fortune is worth more than $30 billion, has all three. He also has intelligence. As a teenager, he taught himself how to program personal computers. As a young man, he realized the power personal computers would have to change modern society. His intelligence and determination helped him turn his company, Microsoft, into the world's largest software maker.
Gates, as the world's richest person, has given away billions of dollars to help the poor and fund medical research. That generosity, however, has not softened the hatred many people have for him. His critics say he is arrogant and mean, willing to break the law to strengthen his company. But even the critics realize Gates has a brilliant mind, and he has used it to make computers and digital information a part of everyday life.
"I'm an optimist. I believe in progress. I'd much rather be alive today than at any time in history.… The tools of the Industrial Age extended the capabilities of our muscles. The tools of the digital age extend the capabilities of our minds."
William H. Gates III was born on October 28, 1955, in Seattle, Washington. His father William was a prominent Seattle attorney, while his mother Mary was a teacher who also worked for the community charitable organization United Way and served on the board of directors for several other groups. His parents' personal contacts helped Gates on several occasions as he built Microsoft.
In seventh grade, Gates attended a private school that had access to a computer—a rarity for the time. He wrote his first program when he was thirteen, creating a tic-tac-toe game. During the next few years, Gates and his friend Paul Allen learned all they could about computers and programming. In 1972, the young partners launched their own company, Traf-O-Data. Using a simple computer, they analyzed traffic information from the Seattle area and sold the results to several government agencies. Traf-O-Data made $20,000 in one year.
Gates took a break from his computer career to enter Harvard in September 1973, but a little more than a year later he and Allen were working on their BASIC program for the Altair 8800, a small computer sold as a kit. Gates wrote the actual code, or lines of instructions that make any software run. He worked on the code almost nonstop for four weeks, in between his classes. When MITS, the maker of the Altair, bought the program, Gates and Allen started another business, Microsoft.
The popularity of the Altair led other companies, including Apple, Commodore, and Tandy, to introduce home computers. Each of these companies used a version of Microsoft's BASIC. Gates also adapted the language to fit the needs of such companies as General Electric, Inc. (see entry) and Citibank. "Bill had a vision," a Microsoft employee told People in 1984. "It was that microcomputers will be important, and that software will be the most important part of microcomputers."
One of Bill Gates's earliest computer jobs was to create a program that would handle class scheduling for students. Gates wrote the program so that he ended up as the only boy in several classes filled with attractive girls.
The success of Microsoft's BASIC led to its first dealings with IBM, a late entry in the PC market. In 1981, Microsoft developed the operating system for the first IBM machine. Its success led to many imitators, or clones, which used the Microsoft Disc Operating System (MSDOS). MS-DOS became the preferred operating system, fueling Microsoft's growth. Gates then focused on developing new software programs and improving the company's operating system.
With the success of Microsoft, Gates became a business celebrity, touted for his youth and his skills. In 1984, People compared him to inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931), calling Gates "part salesman and full-time genius." Gates was notorious for working sixteen hours a day, and demanding the same commitment from his employees.
In 1986, when Microsoft sold shares to the public, Gates's stocks were worth slightly more than $300 million. During the next five years, as the company continued to control the market and expand into business software, the value of the stock grew. By 1991, Gates was estimated to be the second richest person in the United States, worth an estimated $4.8 billion. The next year, he made news as he built a new home for about $50 million. It included a twenty-car garage, a sixty-foot swimming pool, and a library that holds ten thousand books. With his company, however, Gates was always conservative with money. Executives—including Gates—flew coach class on plane trips.
Over the years Bill Gates has become known for giving money to a variety of causes. In 1991, he gave $12 million to the University of Washington School of Medicine. His later charitable gifts included $25 million to support computer science studies at Harvard and $1 billion to help minority students attend college. He and his wife also started the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, which gives more than $1 billion each year to health and education organizations.
Known for a quick temper and a competitive streak, Gates had once said he wanted Microsoft to be as big in software as IBM was in computer hardware. By the early 1990s, he was on his way to that goal. In 1991, a competitor told Forbes, "Bill wants as much of the software industry as he can swallow. And he's got a very big appetite." Money and power, however, did not keep Gates from constantly exploring new ways to improve computers and the sharing of information. His personal life also did not slow him down. Gates married Melinda
Almost from the beginning, Bill Gates took the lead in speaking for Microsoft, while cofounder Paul Allen stayed in the background. Allen left the company in 1983, and with his 40 percent share of Microsoft stock, went on to become one of the wealthiest people in the world. Some things, however, never change. Since leaving Microsoft, Allen has given very few interviews and chooses to stay out of the public eye.
Allen was born in 1953 in Seattle, Washington. Showing an early interest in science, he began teaching himself about computers at the Lakeside School, where he met Bill Gates. After high school, Allen enrolled at Washington State University. He was a student there when he and Gates formed Traf-O-Data in 1972. In 1973, Allen left school for good, taking a job at Honeywell in Washington, then transferring to a position in Boston. Allen's computer programming skills helped Gates write programs for the new Intel microprocessors. When they created the BASIC language for the Altair 8800, Allen made improvements to Gates's work, and some later company products were originally his idea.
During 1981, Allen was named executive vice president of Microsoft while Gates became the president and chairman. The next year, Allen developed cancer. He resigned in 1983, but remained on the company's board of directors. After his recovery, Allen started a new software firm, Asymetrix. He hoped it would be the first piece in his plan to build what he called "the wired world."
Unlike Microsoft, however, Asymetrix struggled to survive. By 1991, the company had just one product and sales were slow. Over the years, Allen made money by investing in other companies—such as AOL Time Warner and DreamWorks SKG (see entries)—but most of the ones he financed directly never met his expectations. One positive venture, however, was Starwave, which Allen started in 1992 and sold five years later for a $200 million profit. Toward the end of the 1990s, Allen began investing successfully in cable television and other "broadband" technologies, which can carry large amounts of digital information. His companies in this industry include Charter Communications and Digeo.
Outside of technology, Allen turned to sports, buying the Portland Trailblazers of the NBA and the Seattle Seahawks of the NFL. He also spent millions to build the Experience Music Project (EMP) in Seattle. Inspired by Allen's admiration for rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970), EMP is an interactive museum dedicated to popular music. Besides his many investments, Allen used his Microsoft money to build several homes, collect art, and buy his own Boeing 757 jet. He has also given generously to various charities.
French, a Microsoft employee, in 1994, in a ceremony that reportedly cost $1 million.
In 1995, Gates took time off from work to write a book, The Road Ahead, that offered some historical details on Microsoft and Gates's vision for the future of computing. Gates said he wrote The Road Ahead "as a travel guide for the forthcoming journey." Of course, Gates expected Microsoft to play a role in shaping that future. The same year, Time noted his status as the "richest self-made man on the planet" and "a global celebrity." His second book, Business @ the Speed of Thought, appeared in 1999.
Gates's success definitely stirred jealousy in the computer world. Over the years, many articles and books have noted the rivalry between Gates and such corporate leaders as Steve Jobs of Apple Computer, Inc. (see entry) and Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems. On the Internet, some sites criticize the power of Microsoft while others, such as Ihatebillgates.com and antigates.com , target Gates personally. The 1998 lawsuit against Microsoft gave the "Gates haters" even more reason to dislike the man and his company. The Justice Department used e-mails from Gates to suggest he lied or stretched the truth during his deposition. Time reported that a witness from the Netscape Communications Corporation (see entry) said Gates and his company used its "vast power … to cut off Netscape's air supply."
With its size and power Microsoft will likely remain a target for lawsuits and criticism. As the public face of a company both feared and loathed, Gates will also stir negative feelings. Still, he has never backed down from his goal of expanding Microsoft and finding new technologies. In 2001, he told U.S. News & World Report, "We're doing as much cool stuff today as we've ever been doing—I'd say more.… We get enthused about the new stuff we do."
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