Thoughts on Bill Gates eventual "retirement"

We have been hearing for two years about the eventual “retirement” of Bill Gates in July 2008. At this years CES keynote, supposedly his last, someone created an amusing video about his last day, and there were the inevitable spoofs.

The only reporting that got me thinking was one article by the cranky geek himself, John C. Dvorak, talking about “The Bill Gates Exit Strategy BS”.

The summary is simple: Mr. Dvorak doesn’t buy it that Gates is going to leave Microsoft and spend his full energies at the foundation. He talks about Gates’s obsessive competitiveness, and the suggestion that the foundation runs itself and doesn’t need his input.

I am someone who works part time at my self-employed paying job, and part-time as a volunteer technology law activist. As someone with a foot in both sectors, I disagree with Mr. Dvorak. There is quite a bit of competition in the non-profit world, but it is competition to convince people about ideas rather than competition to gain money.

Lets state the obvious: Bill Gates doesn’t need any more money. Even if the Microsoft stock dropped over the next decades, Gates will still be living extremely comfortably. Moving from competition where the rewards are money to competition where the rewards are people agreeing with your ideas seems like a very logical thing for Gates to be doing.

There is an obvious area where there will be competition, and that is the area he has been in his entire career.

It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that I was aware of Microsoft and Gates. I had been aware of computers from Commodore, Atari and Apple in my own life, and it wasn’t until I was working at Lynx Technical Services in Ottawa as a certified hardware repairman for Commodore that I first saw what was then called Solitaire 3.0 (AKA: Microsoft Windows 3.0). We called it Solitaire 3.0 as that game was the only thing we ever saw on the screens of those Intel processor based machines on the sales floor. We were of course all Motorola processor fans (The Apple Mac, Commodore Amiga and Atari ST machines all ran Motorola 68000 series processors), and didn’t pay much attention to that toy in the corner.

At one of the local Amiga meetings someone showed me a copy an Open Letter to Hobbiests from Bill Gates dated 1976 (Plain text version).

Mr. Gates made the all too common comparison in his letter between hardware and software stating, “Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share”. I didn’t agree that these two things were the same at all, and have never treated them as such.

I remembered back to my earlier years with 65xx based machines (Vic-20, Commodore 64, PET, Apple II clones) and how sharing and building upon past software was how I learned not only to program, but became interested in computers at all. Dissecting existing works, building my own upon them, and sharing what I had learned was how we were being taught English in the classroom, so it didn’t occur to me back then that this wasn’t a lawful way to learn software. It was only after coming to Ottawa in 1987 that I was told that this was considered illegal. Without knowing how to clearly authorize it, or even knowing that I needed to, I had always shared my own software back to the community.

A few years later I discovered the Free Software movement, and learned how to determine when software is authorized to be shared and how to clearly authorize the sharing of my own software.

Eventually I came across an earlier form of this disagreement on whether hardware and software should be thought of as similar. I now call this disagreement the Jefferson Debate after an August 13, 1813 letter from Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson where Jefferson suggested:

“If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me”

Mr. Gates has helped bring up a few generations of westerners with the idea that treating knowledge (such as computer software) as being like a tangible object (such as computer hardware) is the most natural thing. We live in a society where most people don’t giggle when they hear about an organization calling itself the “Canadian Alliance Against Software Theft”.

He is now going to have his eyes on the parts of the world that hold the majority of the worlds population, which also happen to be the part of the world that is thus far the financially poorest.

I happen to believe that the ideology Gates promotes is dangerous, especially to majority-world countries, but that is going to form one component of the highly competitive marketplace of ideas that he is moving into. The foundation is going to get scrutinized in ways that Microsoft did not, as can be seen with the various criticisms of the foundation. A longer article in the LATimes titled Dark cloud over good works of Gates Foundation documents how the political disconnect between the investment and philanthropy arms of the foundation are coming into conflict, with some of the good intentions being wiped out by those investments.

I observed some of the political effects of the Gates foundation first hand with some of my customers. I was previously technical support for Planned Parenthood Federation in Canada, running Linux-based servers on their LAN for file/print sharing, Internet access and e-Mail. It was decided that since they were getting money from the Gates foundation, and that the Gates foundation was in their mind doing such great things, that it would only be right to run a Microsoft server. The fact that they would be spending more money on Microsoft software than they would be receiving from the Gates foundation didn’t phase them.

It is not a coincidence that Gates will be focusing on Health Care and Education, given these are two areas where the open sharing of ideas through concepts such as Open Access would otherwise be growing the fastest. These, along with software, are the knowledge areas that are most at risk (from Gates point of view) of largely moving to peer production and peer distribution techniques.

On Wednesday I received my OLPC XO from the Give 1, Get 1 program. This project is right in the middle of this competitive battle of ideas. This hardware for this laptop is designed to have “user serviceable parts inside”, and the software is all Open Source and simplified so that youth can more easily modify key aspects. As cool as the hardware is, it is the software that enables the educational goals of this project. Having the core software licensed such that it is clearly legal for students to learn about controlling computers the way I did is critical: look at the software that is there, modify it, and share what they learned with others. This type of learning is going to happen anyway, and the real question at the core of the competition of ideas is whether they will be called students or pirates — whether governments will be funding and promoting the activity, or forced by international trade bodies to enforce laws against this behaviour.

Intel and Microsoft are trying to “compete” with the OLPC project with their Classmate PC (See: CNN: Negroponte on Intel’s $100 laptop pullout). While Intel does offer the Classmate with Linux, this is not a distribution of Linux that is designed from the ground up for education, meaning it would only be the most technical of students that would be studying, modifying or sharing software. Everything I have heard is that the major push to governments has been the Windows XP version, pushing the nonsense idea that learning to push buttons on the “same software” as the businesses in western countries will be required to get future jobs.

Russell McOrmond is a self employed consultant, policy coordinator for CLUE: Canada’s Association for Free/Libre and Open Source Software, co-coordinator for Getting Open Source Logic INto Governments (GOSLING), and host for Digital Copyright Canada.

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