Bill Gates has often courted controversy in the past but these days he avoids it whenever possible. But, wherever he goes in the world, it is likely that relics of his misspent youth, making as much money for his company as he reasonably or unreasonably can, will continue to haunt him.
So on Wednesday as Bill said goodbye to Britain and British business at the Institute of Directors (IoD) in London, it was noticeable that it was he himself who brought up an old sore. When asked by his IoD host what advice he had for those who were starting off in business now he said it was this first: “Try not to get sued by the Government, especially not your own Government.” That was point number one.
As a joke we had heard it before, but any good comedian knows that just because a joke is old, that does not mean you can’s use it again.
The joke reflected the mood of the occasion, Bill Gates was on his farewell tour and of course no-one who had been invited was too willing to miss it.
For the most part, he stuck to the familiar themes. The brilliance of technology and what you can do with it. Does that mean you can make a difference in the third world? Bill thinks so. He has a multi-billion dollar fortune to dispose of and, he made clear, that is where the money is going – to innovations that can make a difference.
Someone asked how much of his fortune that he and his wife had committed to their foundation, with an implication that they would be holding something back somehow. Far form berating the questioner for not understanding how the fund worked (as Bill most certainly would have done a few years ago) he just quietly pointed out that there was a large amount in the fund and he and his wife would close it down when it was all spent in about 20 years.
By then, Bill believes, it would have done its job and made a difference to the poor and, especially, sick of the world.
The IoD is a hard-edged forum, but as I looked around you could see that they were sharing his belief. After all, if you cannot make a difference with money what is it for?
Bill also demo-ed Microsoft’s latest plaything, Microsoft Surface. He believe that can make a difference too but it is difficult to know how a £2,000 device can do that.
But I must say that thanks to Bill, I am starting to think about it.
Did a rare trip to see Bill Gates in action change my view of the great man. Not really. After 20 years of Microsoft IT that was unlikely to work for me. The nice thing about Bill is that with a few more years in the business than I could claim, he still so obviously likes this stuff.
So goodbye Bill and yes, we will miss you.
(What’s that? My computer has crashed, again! Argggh! BILL!)