RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Today marks the end of an era: Bill Gates will step aside from his day-to-day role at Microsoft. At 52, Gates isn't actually retiring. He'll now turn his attention to his philanthropic foundation. It's hard to overstate Gates' legacy at Microsoft. While some of Microsoft's business practices have been sharply criticized, there's no denying that as head of the world's largest software company, Gates has done more than anyone else to bring computing to the masses.
From Seattle, NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.
WENDY KAUFMAN: It was 40 years ago that Bill Gates, then in eighth grade at the Lakeside School, was introduced to his first computer. He was immediately smitten. So was fellow student Paul Allen.
Professor Ed Lazowska of the University of Washington says the two quickly became fast friends.
Professor ED LAZOWSKA (University of Washington): And they started programming. For example, a little company called Traf-O-Data, they did the scheduling for Lakeside School. There are rumors that they and their friends managed to somehow get into the classes of their choices. It was just a couple of brilliant guys who got captured by this incredibly cool field.
KAUFMAN: In 1975, the two college dropouts started a tiny software firm. Three years later the 11 original employees of Microsoft posed for a company photo. Lazowska, who holds the Bill and Melinda Gates chair in computer science, pulls up a picture of a not-very-happy-looking bunch. They are young and kind of homely.
Prof. LAZOWSKA: Lots of glasses that are tinted, lots of glasses with heavy rims, a fair amount of facial hair. The joke caption that you see on this photograph all the time is, would you have invested? And the answer is - some people did.
KAUFMAN: No company has ever minted millionaires, even billionaires, like Microsoft.
Though the company certainly did not invent the PC, the company's founders had a vision of a personal computer on every desk and in every home.
Mr. NATHAN MYHRVOLD (Former Microsoft Executive): In the mid-1980s, that was still kind of a crazy thing. We had a lot of pushback…
KAUFMAN: Former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold appearing in a company video.
Mr. MYHRVOLD: It went in a very short period of time, from insane - that everyone would have a computer; to my God - of course, everyone needs to have a computer.
KAUFMAN: As far back as the late 1970s, Gates recognized the value of software. He argued that if computer users wanted to do more things with their computing machines, they'd need better software and they'd need to pay for it. It was a radical notion at the time.
The geeky guy, still in his 20s, had another bold idea: what if all the computers could speak the same language, if they all ran the same operating system, and used the same software for writing documents or spreadsheets.
Rob Horowitz of the research firm Directions on Microsoft says, remember, early computers were islands unto themselves.
Mr. ROB HOROWITZ (Directions on Microsoft): It was like a little railroad here, a little railroad there. They had different gauge tracks; they had different kinds of engines. Nothing worked with anything else. Vendors, if they wanted to produce something, they had to do the whole kit and caboodle. They had to do the applications; they had to do the hardware.
KAUFMAN: But Microsoft changed that. Its operating system, Windows, became ubiquitous - with computers everywhere speaking the same language, people could communicate more quickly and efficiently. While some viewed this monopoly as constructive, others, including antitrust regulators, saw Microsoft as a ruthless competitor, one that maintained its monopoly by illegal means.
Mr. JOEL KLEIN (Head, Antitrust Division, Department of Justice): The evidence that was summarized in court today demonstrates that Microsoft has used its massive monopoly power to harm competition and to harm consumers.
KAUFMAN: That's Joel Klein, head of the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, outlining the government's case against the company in 1998.
Ms. MARY JO FOLEY (Author, "Microsoft 2.0"): This is the time when they got the nickname of the Evil Empire.
KAUFMAN: Long-time Microsoft watcher, Mary Jo Foley, is the author of "Microsoft 2.0."
Ms. FOLEY: They had gotten away with so much on the competitive front at that point, I don't think they believed that they would ever be brought down by the DOJ.
KAUFMAN: The epic battle between Microsoft and antitrust regulators raged for years before settlements were reached. Many critics contend the company got off much too easily. But that was a long time ago, and Gates and company have moved on.
Later today, Gates will give the key to his corner office to his handpicked successor, Steve Ballmer. Gates will remain chairman of the company's board but will devote nearly all his time to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and its endowment of $37 billion. In a recent interview with NPR, Gates spoke about the importance of eradicating diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis.
Mr. BILL GATES (Retiring Microsoft CEO): Once you improve health in a country, it really changes everything because parents don't need to have as many children to be sure that someone will support them in their old age. And so population growth goes down. You can feed, you can educate, you can provide jobs. And the virtuous cycle can be extended to these other countries.
KAUFMAN: As Gates moves to a full-time role at the foundation, he embarks on what many describe as his second life. His first life at Microsoft, bringing computers to the masses; his second as the world's leading philanthropist.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.
MONTAGNE: And you can trace Bill Gates's evolution from geek to billionaire to philanthropist on that computer that you now own in an interactive timeline at NPR.org.
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