Alison
By Allison Linn Senior writer
msnbc.com
updated 6/23/2008 7:48:13 AM ET 2008-06-23T11:48:13

You may love or you may hate him, but you’d have to be living under a rock — without an Internet connection — not to know who Bill Gates is.

Gates was for years the world’s richest man, even if it wasn’t a mantle he wore gladly. He earned his billions by co-founding Microsoft Corp., a company whose technology — again — may be loved or may be hated but almost can’t be avoided in modern society.

Now he’s poised to leave his full-time work at Microsoft to spend most of his energy on another endeavor that fuels the public’s fascination with him: the world's biggest philanthropy, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, funded largely by his own fortune.

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

Chances are, his new job won’t do much to diminish the world’s obsession with him. For many, the mystique starts with one simple fact: all that money.

“If he was the third-richest man in the world, I don’t think there would be anything near the mystique around Bill Gates that there is,” said Gary Rivlin, a journalist and author of “The Plot to Get Bill Gates.”

In fact, Gates did fall to the No. 3 spot this year, according to Forbes magazine. Still, Forbes estimated that his fortune stands at about $58 billion, and his name is forever associated with the many years he ranked as the world’s richest person.

“It’s almost like being compared to God, in some ways. People would say, as a matter of speech, he’s not as powerful as God or he’s not as rich as Bill Gates,” said Michael Cusumano, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management who has written several books on Microsoft and the technology industry.

Beyond the wealth, there is the quintessential American entrepreneurial story of how he got it. It’s true that Gates, 52, came from a well-to-do family and had privileges including an education at an elite private school that gave him his first exposure to computers at a very young age.

Still, Gates is credited with being among the earliest to recognize two things that would change the technology field forever: the power of personal computing and the potential to make a fortune selling software. Fueled by that vision, Gates famously dropped out of Harvard and started Microsoft with his high school friend Paul Allen. From there they built one of the nation's most storied corporate successes.

“It’s easy to lose track of the fact that this is two kids with a dream,” said Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill and Melinda Gates chair of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington and serves on the technical advisory board for Microsoft’s research arm.

Lazowska credits Gates with helping inspire many students to go into computer science, and he says the mystique surrounding Gates still exists even as other technology luminaries, such as the co-founders of Google, have ascended as role models. When Gates recently spoke at the University of Washington, attendance was limited to 750 people, but Lazowska said “we could have gotten 10,000 people to show up.”

“I think there are other people known as well as Bill, but I don’t think his influence has diminished,” Lazowska said.

Beyond the halls of academia, Gates is renowned for another reason: He has made it socially acceptable, if not actually desirable, to be a geek.

A corporate mogul with billions at his disposal, he still often looks as though he forgot to comb, and perhaps even wash, his hair. Wherever he is, he’s likely the smartest person in the room, and yet he can pepper even the most sophisticated conversation with mannerisms reminiscent of a teenager, including a high-pitched voice, a penchant for words like “super” and a distinct strain of social awkwardness.

Even those who are highly critical of how Microsoft used its dominant position in the computing market concede it is fascinating to spend time with him, in part because, unlike most other executives, he rarely seems scripted.

In recent years, Gates, or his advisors, have improved his wardrobe and hair style, and even made it an art form to poke fun at his nerdy, hard-working image. At this year’s consumer electronics trade show, CES, a parody video about his impending departure from full-time work at Microsoft showed Gates idling in his office, playing with action figures. Later, he was seen pumping iron with Matthew McConaughey, trying to goad Bono into letting him join U2 and even angling to convince Jon Stewart he’d be a good “Daily Show” co-anchor.

The star-studded video intentionally flattered him, but it also spoke to both his power and place in popular culture — a rare feat for a technical guru and business executive.

In the business world, Gates is legendary not just for building such a successful company but  for keeping a hand in day-to-day operations for decades. Cusumano said Gates has always ranked among the most admired business leaders and notes that those who spend time with him are usually impressed with his technical mastery.

“He was able to evolve from this high school kid to an industry executive,” Cusumano said.

Still, many in the business world also say Microsoft has become successful in part by exerting a stranglehold on the desktop operating system market, arguably at the expense of other companies.

Microsoft’s Windows operating system still powers the vast majority of the world's personal computers, and its Office desktop suite is the software of choice for writing documents, compiling spreadsheets and composing presentations. Some people think Internet and computing technology would have evolved more quickly if Microsoft didn’t have as much control, while others feel irritated that they are stuck with products renowned for bugs and other quirks.

“People begrudgingly become his customer,” Cusumano said.

Indeed, there are plenty of people who disdain Bill Gates: Use rival Google’s Internet search engine to look up the words “I hate Bill Gates,” and watch the results fly.

Gates made his first enemies among computer enthusiasts back in the 1970s, when he sought to put a stop to the common practice of freely sharing software, arguing that there should be a profit motive. Some early computer geeks also complained that he wasn’t the first to understand the personal computer market; he was just the first to commercialize it well.

“People in the computer world saw that he was a derivative, that there (were) other trailblazers before him,” Rivlin said. “Microsoft’s great gift, his great gift, was that he was a great imitator.”

That criticism has dogged Gates his entire career and helped fuel high-profile run-ins with antitrust regulators in the United States and abroad. The U.S. antitrust case, in particular, showed Gates to be fiercely competitive and single-mindedly intent on squashing his rivals — in this case, the Internet browser Netscape — by virtually any means possible.

Curiously, however, opinion polls at the time showed that the trial did not seriously diminish the public’s opinion of him.

“We have this love/hate relationship with ruthless and successful people,” said Andy Gavil, a law professor at Howard University who closely followed the trial and is working on a book about Microsoft’s antitrust woes. “We admire them even as we fear them.”

Many who watched Gates at the height of the U.S. antitrust trial have been surprised by his transformation into a major philanthropist intent on solving major global health problems. That dichotomy is yet another reason for the public’s fascination with him.

“It’s extraordinary that this guy in the late 1990s who was so fiercely competitive … is deciding at a relatively young age — his mid-50s — to give most of his energy, not to mention half if not more of his money, to philanthropy,” Rivlin said. “It’s just shocking.”

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