Bill of goods

Is it possible that the brash former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates has become...likable?

Rob Walker, Yahoo News
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For Bill Gates, technology is still the solution. He shows Charlie Rose some inventions he's working on to help heal the world.
by Rob Walker | Yahoo Tech

Last night’s 60 Minutes interview, combined with a related online extra that’s getting a lot of link love today, formalizes a transformation that’s been long in the works, but is now indisputable. It turns out that everybody loves Bill Gates.

This was not always the case, and the change has been so gradual it’s easy to miss how remarkable it is. Back in the 1990s, you would have had a pretty hard time convincing most people that a lovable version of Gates would ever be possible. Microsoft was an astonishing success story, but to the extent the company and Gates were admired, it was for raw business cunning (and an ever-rising share price). As it stomped rivals from Apple to Netscape, Gates’ reputation back then was not as an innovator — quite the opposite — but rather as a ruthless competitor. He often came across as impatient, condescending, petulant. His response to government antitrust lawyers seemed to range from self-righteous to testy to contemptuous. The Gates of the public imagination was a high-tech caricature of some monopolist tycoon from the Gilded Age.

That guy is gone. In his place we have the Gates in last night’s interview with Charlie Rose: A high-minded philanthropist absorbed in solving massive societal problems, enthusing over new inventions that will transform the most desperate lives, toting around stacks of charmingly geeky reading material (a book on fertilizer is mentioned) and obsessed with learning about every subject imaginable through a huge collection of Great Courses DVDs. Thoughtful, optimistic and kind, he’s now a guy you want to have lunch with. And after you hear him warmly pay tribute to his father as his one true hero, you’ll want to buy. (Microsoft is scarcely discussed, but as my colleague Virginia Heffernan pointed out not long ago, even Gates’ old company seems kinda cool these days.)

I’m not sure if it would even be possible to recall the old version of Gates if it weren’t for a few quick clips from his younger and more combative iteration spliced into the segment. It makes you wonder how this metamorphosis came about. Was there a specific moment when Likable Gates emerged? Surely his wife and philanthropic partner Melinda Gates must be a major factor. Having handed over the reigns of Microsoft in robust condition, he has had no need to look over his shoulder, and if anything is freer to muse about technology as a respected wise man rather than hard-nosed CEO. And perhaps we all mellow with age — although it’s not easy to envision a warm and fuzzy Mark Zuckerberg of the future.

But maybe the real answer has as much to with us as it does with Gates himself: The cliché goes that Americans love to build up heroes so we can tear them down, turning yesterday’s success story into today’s cautionary reworking of the Icarus tale. It’s less frequently observed that we love a good redemption story, too.

While Gates’ relationship with Steve Jobs is a fleeting subject in the main 60 Minutes piece, it’s telling that a Web extra largely devoted to that theme is attracting lots of attention. Contrasting the two men has always been irresistible, and in the heyday of their rivalry, the comparison invariably favored Jobs: He was cooler, more original, passionate, charismatic. But now it’s hard not to think different, as it were, about which man had the greater and more admirable ambitions about how to change the world.

Recounting a visit with Jobs toward the end of his life, Gates says they talked about education, and mentions that Jobs showed him pictures of “the boat he was working on.” (Am I the only one who cringed slightly at being reminded of this immense yacht in the context of Gates building a philanthropic legacy?) Showing a bit of emotion, Gates says that as two brash entrepreneurs building companies in their 20s, they “grew up together,” in a sense, and had the uncommon experience of seeing their dreams essentially come true.

And maybe doing what they did required brashness in the extreme. We’ll never know how Jobs might have continued to grow over time. But with Gates, we’ve seen it. And, clearly, we like it. If someone who seemed like a rapacious capitalist can turn out to be a sunny humanitarian, then surely there’s hope for us all.

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