Skinny, shy and awkward, teenaged Bill Gates seemed an unlikely successor to his overachieving parents. His father, powerfully built and 6’6” tall, was a prominent Seattle attorney, and his gregarious mother served on charitable boards and ran the United Way. While he showed enormous talent for math and logic, young Bill, a middle child, was no one’s idea of a natural leader, let alone a future billionaire who would reinvent American business.
Born in 1955, Gates attended public elementary school, and enrolled in the private Lakeside School at age 12. The following year, Gates wrote his first computer program, at a time when computers were still room-sized machines run by scientists in white coats. Soon afterwards, he and his friend Paul Allen wrote a scheduling program for the schoolwhich coincidentally placed the two in the same classes as the prettiest girls in school. Still in high school, Gates and Allen founded a company called Traf-O-Data, which analyzed city traffic data.
Gates set off for Harvard University intending to become a lawyer like his father. Still shy and awkward, he rarely ventured out to parties unless dragged by his friend Steve Ballmer, whom he later repaid by naming him president of Microsoft.
One day in December 1974, Allen, who was working at Honeywell outside of Boston, showed Gates a Popular Mechanics cover featuring the Altair 8800, a $397 computer from M.I.T.S. computing that any hobbyist could build. The only thing the computer lacked, besides a keyboard and monitor, was software. Gates and Allen contacted the head of M.I.T.S. and said they could provide a version of BASIC for the Altair.
After a successful demonstration at the company’s Albuquerque headquarters, M.I.T.S. contracted with Gates and Allen for programming languages. The pair moved to New Mexico and started Micro-soft (they dropped the hypen later). Although the company’s first five clients went bankrupt, the company struggled on, moving to Seattle in 1979. The following year, IBM asked Gates to provide an operating system for its first personal computer. Gates purchased a system called QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System) for $50,000 from another company, changed the name to MS-DOS, and licensed it to IBM. The IBM PC took the market by storm when it was introduced in 1981and licensing fees streamed into Microsoft, ensuring the company’s survival over the next several years.
Microsoft continued concentrating on the software market, adding consumer applications like Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel. Through Gates’ company Corbis, Microsoft acquired the vast Bettmann photo archives and other collections for use in electronic distribution. In 1986, when the company went public, Gates became a paper billionaire at the age of 31. The following year, the company introduced its first version of Windows, and by 1993 it was selling a million copies a month. When Windows 95 was introduced in August 1995, seven million copies were sold in the first six weeks alone. Microsoft’s software became so ubiquitous that the U.S. Justice Department began a series of long-lasting antitrust investigations against the company, bogging it down in protracted legal battles.
In 1995, Gates dramatically changed the direction of the entire company and focused on the Internet. While some of his efforts, including the much hyped Microsoft Network and its highly touted Web “shows,” fizzled, the company quickly gained ground on Netscape with its popular Internet Explorer browser.
Meanwhile, Gates built a 40,000-square-foot technological showcase of a home on Lake Washington and in 1994, married Melinda French, a marketing executive at Microsoft. At the same time, Gates increased his charitable giving: He earmarked $1 billion over 20 years to establish the Gates Millennium Scholarship Program, which will support promising minority students through college and some kinds of graduate school; and $750 million over five years to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, which includes the World Health Organization, the Rockefeller Foundation, Unicef, pharmaceutical companies, and the World Bank.
In November 1999, the U.S. District Court issued a preliminary decision that the software giant was a monopoly, signaling continued trouble for both Gates and the Microsoft Corporation. Shortly after the ruling, Gates stepped down as Microsoft’s CEO and assumed the position of chairman and chief software architect.
Under the 1999 ruling, Microsoft was required to release the Windows 2000 operating code to manufacturers. In April 2000, the Justice Department proposed that Microsoft should be divided into two companies. One company would develop software mainstays like Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer, while the other would solely concentrate on the Windows operating systems (which currently run on 85% of the world’s computers).
Gates consistently maintained that it would be functionally impossible to sever the Windows operating system from other Microsoft applications. No immediate restrictions were implemented on the company, and in late July 2001 a federal appeals court unanimously overturned the lower court’s order to break up Microsoft.
With a reported fortune of $54 billion, Gates retained the top spot in a 2001 Forbes magazine survey of the 400 wealthiest Americans, though he lost $9 billion from the year before. His Microsoft cofounder, Allen, was third on the list.