Bill Gates gets real about free software

In a frank Reddit AMA, Microsoft's founder reveals he may not be the supervillain that open source advocates have made him out to be

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, is a very rich man -- rich enough that despite ardent efforts, he's struggling to give away his mountains of cash. To a certain strain of free software advocate, Gates is rich because he spent decades burying free software, once dubbing it a "new form of communism."

But in a Reddit AMA, Gates came across as anything but an emperor of evil. Not generally known for his sense of humor, Gates seemed relaxed and, yes, funny. When asked what people get for the man who can buy himself anything, he quipped, "Free software. Just kidding."

Much of the conversation revolved around the humanitarian work that Gates and his wife, Melinda, spend the majority of their time doing. One is left with the question: Was Gates ever truly the caricature of anti-open source fury he once seemed?

Does Bill Gates hate open source?

Microsoft under its current CEO, Satya Nadella, has embraced open source with gusto, even going so far as to announce support for SQL Server on Linux.

This open source love-in is not really new to Microsoft -- or to Gates. Though he did make that "communism" comment back in 2005, Microsoft's steady embrace of open source happened under his watch, first as chairman and since 2014 as technical adviser to Nadella. Gates spends a third of his time with Microsoft product groups, the same ones that are actively embracing open source.

This is a new Microsoft, but arguably not a new Gates. As revealed in an answer to a Reddit question, it simply took some time for Gates to understand how open source could work for Microsoft. Speaking specifically about the SQL Server news ("What do you think this means or says about the company's direction, culture and future?"), Gates noted:

I think it shows Satya looking at how the market is changing and being willing to change how things have been done. His embrace of the cloud and mobile including doing software on other people's mobile platforms are also great examples of that.

Such decisions haven't been made in Gates' absence. He's part of them.

How Gates evolved

This comment mirrors Gates' response in an earlier AMA related to the open Internet. In 2013 Gates was asked: "What are your thoughts on the push against the open and free Internet that we have been seeing in the recent past and present (such as sopa, etc)?" His reply could equally apply to open source:

There are two things this could reference. One is the free/pay for software mix. The Internet has benefited from having lots of free stuff and lots of commercial software. It has been interesting [to] see people inventing hybrid models. Even stuff that is pretty commercial often has free versions for some audiences. Even the most open stuff often have services people choose to pay for.

Not that Gates is blinded by open source. When asked about his one-time goal to put a computer in every home, he stressed the importance of now making those computers smart: "Today the challenge is to make computers more intelligent. Software still doesn't understand what thing I should pay attention to next."

Some of that work will be open source (Microsoft increasingly open-sources its R&D rather than keeping it proprietary), but not all of it. In this, Gates and Microsoft are pragmatically figuring out what needs to be open to drive innovation and what needs to be closed to drive revenue. It's a balancing act, one that open source has always applauded.

A kinder, gentler Gates

Ultimately, however, Gates is no longer consumed by software. When asked what he's most excited for human society to accomplish in the next 20 years, software didn't make the list. In fact, nothing related to his previous vocation made it into his top three, which were:

  • First innovation to lower the cost and get rid of greenhouse gases. This isn't guaranteed so we need a lot of public and private risk taking.

  • Second is progress on disease particularly infectious disease. Polio, Malaria, HIV, TB, etc.. are all diseases we should be able to either eliminate or bring down close to zero. There is amazing science that makes us optimistic this will happen.

  • Third are tools to help make education better -- to help teachers learn how to teach better and to help students learn and understand why they should learn and reinforce their confidence.

These are the concerns of a man indifferent to whether open source is communism or Linux is a cancer (Steve Ballmer) or whether it's all "un-American" (Jim Allchin). Though Gates wasn't able to dedicate his time to such causes as CEO or chairman of Microsoft, his humanity can't be a recent development.

Back in 2008, Gates called for a "kinder capitalism" at the World Economic Forum. Some people (myself included) weren't ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. But Gates, fierce competitor he was, has arguably always done what he felt was right. At one time that meant defending Windows and other Microsoft products against open source. Today it means embracing open source.

People are complicated. In Gates' Reddit AMA a humane, thoughtful Gates reveals himself ... the very same Gates that fought open source, thinking that battle was the right thing for his business and for users. The Internet commentariat will always deny it, but personal evolution happens. 

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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