How Bill Gates Changed The World

By democratizing the personal computer, the tech titan gave rise to the internet, smart phones, digital banking and social media.

(Justin Tallis – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

When asked to describe Bill Gates, many people would start with the obvious: He’s one of the richest men in the world—with a net worth of around $130 billion—and has been for decades, becoming almost synonymous with the top of the list of world’s wealthiest individuals.

For many, he serves as the epitome of the tech billionaire and global titan, interchangeable as a generic version of the impossibly wealthy global elite—yet that generalization is far wide of the mark.

Those who are slightly better informed would no doubt speak about his foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the largest and most impactful philanthropic organizations the world has ever seen. With core priorities and grant-making areas (Global Health, Global Development, Global Growth and Opportunity, Global Policy and Advocacy, Gender Equality, and U.S. Program), hardly a week goes by that the foundation isn’t in the news for efforts in one or more of these areas.

Research has shown that malaria, polio and other lethal diseases have been significantly reduced, thanks to commitments from the Gates Foundation; access to the internet (and the information and power that provides users) has been greatly expanded; and that’s barely scratching the surface of the foundation’s work, goals and accomplishments.

Some people, when asked about Gates, might mention the Giving Pledge, in which the Microsoft co-founder (and others he encouraged) promise to give away the majority of their wealth to charitable causes prior to, or upon, their deaths. Still others might mention his frequent appearances at global economic forums and technological conferences, or even try and use him as a comparative example when describing the next generation of tech geniuses and über-wealthy entrepreneurs.

But how many of these descriptions, or public perceptions of Gates, are centered upon, or even mention in depth, the way Gates built not only Microsoft, but the software industry itself? At times it can feel like his business career is considered some form of prologue to the philanthropic second chapter of his life, rather than his charitable work serving as an epilogue to his iconic entrepreneurial and technological accomplishments and contributions to our society and global community with Microsoft.

And while these absolutely deserve celebration, support and encouragement, they leave out with increasing frequency the perception of Gates as a groundbreaking computer-science visionary and business mogul who turned iconoclast with his development of historic products and revenue structures at Microsoft, from MS-DOS and Windows to the economic model for software that created the modern hardware/software model we now take as a given.

Gates was born in Seattle in 1955 to a well-educated family. While he showed clear signs of both interest and talent in the business world at a young age, it wasn’t until he enrolled at an elite private school that his path to immortality would reveal itself. While other 13-year-olds were occupied with standard junior high antics and interests, Gates was enthralled by the computer, the underlying technology and the seemingly endless possibilities for what could be done with this burgeoning technology.

Along with a few schoolmates, including Paul Allen, Gates even started the “Lakeside Programming Group,” which was soon developing early software applications for beneficial things like scheduling classes and organizing simple data. When Gates left for Harvard in 1973, his passion for the future of computer science and technology, and his friendship with Allen, would stay with him despite the cross-continental move.

Originally thinking he might want to pursue a career in law, Gates quickly began to focus on mathematics and computer science, which together enhanced his programming abilities and reinforced his belief in the potential the personal computer actually held.

Gates, working with his business partner Allen, developed and refined a programming language called BASIC that worked on the Altair 8800, often called the world’s first microcomputer. As Gates realized, a key pillar of computer science would importantly be both hardware and software.

While only the few scientists and researchers involved in computer science at the time even understood the terms and the differences, this would become a defining aspect of the digital age and technologies Gates helped create. It also would frame a business model that flew in the face of industry standards, returning immense consistent revenues and long-term profitability, and serving as an example by which almost all software creators run their businesses today.

People and companies aren’t going to risk years of money and other resources if they don’t have a way to recoup their costs, and then some, after completing the project. Whether that’s a Hollywood film, a pharmaceutical breakthrough or a software program, it can often take millions or billions of dollars of investment and risk before any profit or upside can be realized.

After founding Microsoft with Allen following his departure from Harvard in 1975, Gates would also build an empire based on and protected by copyright and intellectual property laws. It was in these areas that Gates not only bucked the system but tore it down to its roots, which led to a revolution in the software business model that endures to today. It all started with Microsoft working on a project for another icon of the technology and computer industry, IBM.

Gates and Allen had started Microsoft in part on the grandiose altruistic conviction that personal computers should be in every home, and that they were the ones who could help accomplish this goal. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Gates has leaned so far into philanthropy when the original goal of his company was to improve the world by expanding the use, usefulness and affordability of personal computing.

When IBM partnered with Microsoft to have Gates and Allen build the operating system for IBM’s new personal computer, the results were extraordinary. MS-DOS, created through acquisition, coding refinement and a strong dose of Gates and Allen’s brilliance, would become a foundational software for decades to come, a pivotal role in the early growth stages of computing and one that solidified Microsoft’s relationship with IBM.

The company exploded in revenues, profitability and growth, dominating market share and reinvesting this cash flow into building more and better software products. By creating must-have products, and licensing them to customers to enable repeat sales and countless clients, Microsoft had come close to total domination of the software side of the industry while allowing the other big computer companies to battle over microprocessors, hard drives and shrinking profit margins.

They would refresh this dominance in 1995 with the equally groundbreaking Windows 95, using licensing to “sell” that product again and again, turning purchases into something more akin to memberships and providing Microsoft long-term revenue stability and predictable corporate financial performance by turning onetime customers into long-term clients. Each of these now ubiquitous software offerings was at one point revolutionary, but it can be argued that the truly revolutionary idea behind Microsoft wasn’t the products it built but the way the company structured its business and revenue streams.

Gates began stepping back from Microsoft in 2000, relinquishing the CEO role in exchange for a less-demanding role as Chief Software Architect, allowing him to continue contributing to product development but allowing Gates more time for his other passions, such as philanthropy. In 2008, he transitioned out of a day-today role in the company. Six years later, he relinquished his Chairman of the Board title and began serving as Technology Advisor, reassuring worried shareholders that he would continue to support the company from this new position. In 2020, he stepped down from the company’s board of directors to dedicate more time to his philanthropic priorities.

In the many years since his official departure from Microsoft’s day-to-day operations, Gates has accomplished an incomprehensible level of impact and contributions to our world. His foundation works tirelessly to help those in need around the globe and to provide opportunity and resources to enable these people to develop skills that lead to better lives. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that while the Gates Foundation is immensely important in global philanthropy, developing best practices and improving the lives of millions or billions, in all likelihood it still isn’t the biggest way that Bill Gates has improved other people’s lives.

Rather, by democratizing the personal computer, enabling everything that followed (internet, smart phones, digital banking and social media), Gates has improved the lives of billions in a myriad of ways. Although he’s world-famous for the second chapter of his life, perhaps we wrongly overlook the positive impact the first chapter of Bill Gates’ life has had on the entirety of humanity. It deserves as much recognition and celebration as any of his efforts in the past two decades, perhaps more.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Maxim magazine.