William Henry Gates III is currently the world’s third-richest person, with a current net worth of around $58 billion USD. Out of all of the billionaires on the Forbes and Fortune magazine’s lists, it is William Henry Gates III, better known as Bill Gates, who is the most world-famous. And, also unusual for a top world billionaire, he is what you might call a one-trick pony. He made his fortune from microcomputer software at the exact moment when the world adopted microcomputers, and that is that. One company, one product.
Bill Gates was born on October 28, 1955 in Seattle, Washington, United States. He was the son of two already highly affluent parents; his father, William H. Gates, Sr. (the only one in the family line not to have the number), was already a career business lawyer who co-founded Preston Gates & Ellis LLP, and his mother, Mary Maxwell Gates, was a career banker who was serving on the board of directors for First Interstate Bank. Furthermore, his grandfather, William H. Gates II, was the president of a bank himself, and there are many other affluent business persons in the Gates family tree.
Although it was his father’s wish that he become a lawyer, Bill Gates did not at first seem to start out with much motivation to create his own career. Though he attended and graduated Lakeside, an exclusive preparatory school, he only briefly attended Harvard University before dropping out. Despite this, he holds an honorary degree from Harvard anyway, in recognition of his business success.
Bill Gates’ first brush with computers happened almost accidentally, in 1971. His best friend from Lakeside, Paul Allen, happened to be interested in programming, and founded the Lakeside Programming Group, a hobby club within the prep school. The hobby club attracted new members who would tinker with the big, mainframe machines - PDPs among them - of the time, playing with assembly, Lisp, and BASIC code and using teletypes and even punched cards. Eventually Gates and Allen joined another hobbyist computer club, called the “Homebrew Computer Club”, which had an open-source BASIC program interpreter which they had written. This put them in the right place at the right time when a new computer company, called Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MIPS) approached the club offering to buy their BASIC interpreter. Gates and Allen acted for the club and sold the program to MIPS. The rest of the club was not happy with this outcome, reasoning that it was everyone’s open source program and Gates and Allen had no right to sell it.
The feud between them eventually fueled Bill Gates’ famous “Open Letter to Hobbyists” in 1976, and this set a precedent for Gates to hold all free and open source software in contempt and to swear to stamp it out wherever he could. The feud between Microsoft and the open source community still goes on today, in the form of the rivalry between Microsoft and Linux, as well as with BSD and Apple, whose Mac OS software is also based on BSD. Nevertheless, the pair of Gates and Allen formed Micro-Soft Corporation and continued to hire programmers and sell more software. Microsoft, as the company eventually came to be called, essentially grew up alongside the microcomputer revolution, when old mainframe machines and time-shared systems gave way to stand-alone personal computers that could fit on a desktop.
It was Bill Gates’ family connections that paved the way for the next big break, when his mother, Mary Maxwell Gates, served on the board of the United Way charity at the same time as John Akers, the CEO of IBM. Akers mentioned to Mrs. Gates that the company was looking for an operating system for the new personal computers, and Mrs. Gates naturally recommended her son. Bill Gates, upon being approached, had to hire a scab programmer by the name of Tim Paterson to quickly write the QDOS (literally “Quick and Dirty Operating System”) operating system, which was a clone of the then-existing CP/M operating system. IBM bought the license rights to QDOS and yet through the nature of an unusual agreement between IBM and Microsoft, Microsoft continued to own the system and IBM had to pay them every time it sold a computer. The concept of proprietary software was born, since before this time the normal practice was that software had been given away for free, because computers themselves were so expensive as to prohibit additional costs. Gates continued this business plan by buying up other software products and companies, then incorporating the software into its own programs to be sold as part of its offerings.
QDOS became DOS, DOS became Windows 3.0, Windows became Windows 95, 98, 2000, XP, and Vista, and Microsoft grew into the richest software company in the world. In 1986, at the age of just 31, Bill Gates became the youngest billionaire in history at the time. In 1990, Windows 3.0 enjoyed sales of over $1 billion, a historical record for a software product. In 1993, United States president George H.W. Bush presented Bill Gates with the National Medal of Technology, an act which would foreshadow his son George W. Bush’s presidential act of pardoning Microsoft from its antitrust and monopoly convictions. Gates became the richest person in the United States in 1994 and the richest person in the world in 1995, although since relinquishing that title to Warren Buffett and Carlos Slim Helú.
While other billionaires have shown a great deal of struggle and fortitude to get where they are today, Bill Gates seems to have simply fallen into his success. To his credit, he does not take himself too seriously to this day, appearing in public in the relaxed, casual manner of any “computer geek”. Nevertheless, although he has now, at the age of just 52, stepped down as CEO of Microsoft, his personal fortune is still vast and he has stated that he has many more ambitious plans in store.