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Gates' historical legacy may focus more on philanthropy than on Microsoft

Charitable work seen as breaking new ground, both in its scale and his methods

June 23, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - With the impending retirement of Bill Gates from Microsoft Corp. comes an obvious question: How will history view him? As a founder of the world's most influential software vendor and one of the biggest creators of wealth ever? Or as a monopolist and digital robber baron?

In fact, Gates may be remembered less for any of that than he is for his philanthropic work — perhaps even as the greatest philanthropist the world has yet to see. Just like Andrew Carnegie, who today is remembered more for his charitable largess than his exploits in the steel industry, Gates' business legacy may fade over time in comparison to his work with the namesake foundation that he set up with his wife Melinda (see more coverage on our "Bill Gates Moves On" page).

During the age of the industrial robber barons, Carnegie was an immensely controversial figure. In the 1870s, he founded Carnegie Steel Co., which became the world's largest and most profitable corporation. He became successful at least in part by paying very low wages, and by union-busting. For example, the infamous Homestead Strike of 1892 was set off when Carnegie cut the pay of his employees. The company hired replacement workers, and a small militia of Pinkerton detectives sent in to protect them killed and wounded numerous strikers.

After that incident, Carnegie was widely reviled. But in 1901, he sold Carnegie Steel to J.P Morgan (who then turned the company into U.S. Steel) and embarked on a massive philanthropic binge, giving away millions of dollars to libraries and educational institutions, and also funding scientific research and efforts to promote world peace. Ultimately, Carnegie gave away almost all of his money.

Gates likewise has said that over time, he will donate nearly his entire fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses primarily on improving health care, particularly in Africa and other parts of the developing world, and on reducing poverty.

Gates initially gave $126 million to the foundation in 2000, and by 2006 he and his wife had given it more than $26 billion. That made it the world's largest charitable foundation; as of this March, it had $37.3 billion in assets, thanks also to donations by investor Warren Buffett, a friend of Gates who has said he plans to give a total of almost $31 billion to the foundation.

Peter Krass, the author of a biography of Carnegie, thinks that the steel magnate's example likely made a significant impression on Gates' decision to devote most of his time to philanthropy after retiring from his day-to-day role at Microsoft at the age of 52.



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