Good Bill, Bad Bill, and The Art of Philanthropy

by Glyn Moody

There's no doubt that 2008 will go down in history as the end of the first Microsoft era. This year, Bill Gates will finally hang up his Microsoft mouse and leave the company he cofounded over 30 years ago. Most people know that he's going off to spend the very large sums of money he has acquired from those Microsoft years, most of which has been used to set up the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with $37.6 billion in assets. But what will that really mean for free software?

Could it be that we will see a kinder, gentler Good Bill – quite unlike Bad Bill, the sworn enemy of those free software “communists”? Not surprisingly, the world's press were quick to jump on hints of just such a transformation in Bill's speech to the World Economic Forum, where he propounded his idea of “creative captalism”:

an approach where governments, businesses, and nonprofits work together to stretch the reach of market forces so that more people can make a profit, or gain recognition, doing work that eases the world's inequities.

Some people might object to this kind of market-based social change, arguing that if we combine sentiment with self-interest, we will not expand the reach of the market, but reduce it. Yet Adam Smith, the very father of capitalism and the author of “Wealth of Nations,” who believed strongly in the value of self-interest for society, opened his first book with the following lines:

"How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it."

Creative capitalism takes this interest in the fortunes of others and ties it to our interest in our own fortunes in ways that help advance both. This hybrid engine of self-interest and concern for others can serve a much wider circle of people than can be reached by self-interest or caring alone.

Now, as Matt Asay pointed out, what Bill is groping towards here is open source – something that can be at once a business model and a way of doing good in the world. But it is striking that, as far as I can see, no commentators have picked up on what Bill Gates said next:

My thinking on this subject has been influenced by many different experiences, including the work Microsoft does to address inequity.

For the past 20 years, Microsoft has used corporate philanthropy as a way to bring technology to people who don't have access. We've donated more than US$3 billion in cash and software to try to bridge the digital divide.

That's undoubtedly generous, but as anyone in the free software world will point out, that generosity has been also something of a poisoned chalice. Certainly, Microsoft gives you software, but it is, of course, Windows software. And so most of that $3 billion was spent on getting people hooked on Windows, so that in time they'd be forking out for the upgrades. In other words, it's not that different from tobacco companies handing out free cigarettes in developing nations in order to ensure there's a continuing supply of, er, committed customers.

In another recent talk, to the Government Leaders Forum, Gates made clear that Microsoft was going to carry on in a similar vein:

Our investment is, of course, often free software and very reduced price software, but we also have our employees get involved in these programs, really put their time into it. We do some cash grants in these programs that we've spent about a little over 200 million at this point, and in the next five years, with the additional money we'll put in, we'll get up to over 500 million. The goal is to get to over 250 million additional students, so a very ambitious goal but I think one that's achievable and certainly needed.

Well, yes, it certainly is needed – by Microsoft as much as by the students, since it has to keep the Windows machine fed.

But what will Bill's future role in all this be, once he commits himself more fully to his Foundation? Obviously, he won't be doing anything so crass as handing out grants for people to buy Windows. In fact, I'm sure that he will spend the money extremely well, and to great effect for the world's poor and needy. And I wholeheartedly applaud that fact. But what will happen as a result is that image of the Good Bill will become more and more stamped on people's minds, and more and more people will come to admire him.

Nothing wrong with that, you might add. Except that admiration can have interesting knock-on consequences, as it did this week in Paris, where Bill Gates was on hand personally to seal an agreement with the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, for Microsoft to support a number of projects – worthy projects all – in that city with Microsoft hardware and software. And what did M. Delanoë say?

It is an immense honour to work with Microsoft. Bill Gates is a man whom I admire enormously.

You can't help feeling that it was in part due to that personal admiration that M. Delanoë went with Windows, and not, for example, Ubuntu, as the French Gendarmerie Nationale did, also this week.

And so, I suspect, it will be increasingly in the future. As the Bad Bill gives way to the Good Bill, he will pop up in these kind of circumstances, surrounded by admirers, some of whom will just happen to be key people in the acquisition of software. The Good Bill will travel around the world, handing out his and other people's money, saving lives, and calling on world leaders and top business people. And through a kind of halo effect, Good Bill's bad old company, Microsoft, will also be perceived by many as good, as it gives out its cigarettes – I mean, its software - to the world's needy.

And so, paradoxically, the more the Bad Bill becomes the Good Bill, the more long-term harm he will do in the world of computing by spreading the Windows habit to those least able to afford it, with knock-on damage to countries' balance of payments and the rest. Meanwhile, the increasingly-confused free software community will find that the more it tries to attack the Good Bill for doing harm in this way, it, rather than Bill, will be portrayed as bad by the growing global band of Good Bill admirers, for daring to question such manifest and munificent philanthropy.

Glyn Moody writes about open source at opendotdotdot.

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