Our Bill

by Stevan Alburty

from Upside

1997 by Stevan Alburty
    All rights reserved.




"Microsoft bashing" has long been a popular leisure-time activity among its competitors. Companies who depend on the Redmond giant for its patriarchal largesse also grumble about Microsoft as if it were a rich relative with gluttonous table manners who has to be invited to Christmas dinner, but next to whom no one wishes to sit. Even Microsoft's customers, the millions for whom the morning Windows startup chime peals like a call to Mass, love to take an occasional whack at Bill and his billions.

The public's use of that first name, "Bill," to refer to the founder of Microsoft is instructive. We never called Iacocca "Lee." For a long time, Bill seemed to be "one of us"--a lucky stiff who just happened to be in the right place at the right time and struck it rich. We saw him in mythic terms, his rise to success being a classic example of what Joseph Campbell called "the Hero's Journey." Lately, there has been a subtle metamorphosis in the Bill Gates myth.

The ancient Greeks were amazingly tolerant of their heroes. Nobody minded much if they pillaged entire cities or killed off members of their immediate family. But the Greeks drew the line at "hybris", an excessive arrogance which always led to some form of retribution. Americans also like a little humility in their heroes. We want to see small-town boys make good until their britches get too big for them.

Microsoft has cornered the market in PC operating systems and invests in everything from satellite networks to movie studios. Gates seems to have never met a market he didn't like. But new disclosures exposing the darker side of Microsoft's persona now appear with disturbing frequency - bullying distribution deals, predatory pricing, strong-arm sales tactics. This isn't competition, it's carpet-bombing.

Meanwhile, at the U.N., Ted Turner donates a billion dollars. In Russia, George Soros hands out half a billion. But in Seattle, visitors to the art museum pay $6 to see da Vinci's Codex, on loan from the private collection of Bill and Melinda Gates. This last instance of philanthropy seems less noble than regal: Let them browse cake.

What should concern Bill is that small shifts in public perception can feed upon each other and cascade out of control. If Gates doesn't muzzle his company's aggressive behavior and learn to play well with others, it may not be long before America begins to transform the Bill Gates myth into something far less flattering. No longer the smart (if overly acquisitive) innovator, Gates may ultimately become viewed as just plain mean. That doesn't make him a hero, it makes him the Leona Helmsley of technology.