Bill Gates grins as he wheels a bulky industrial barrel across a stage in Vancouver, British Columbia. A billionaire, toting his own prop, one comically incongruous with the slim TED Talks microphone at his lip—get it? There’s more to that smile than jest, though. We’ve seen it before. It’s prologue, not punchline, the kind of expression a precocious student might try to hide before shouting the answer. He knows something we don’t.
Wary of inefficiency, he doesn’t take long to let us in. When he was a kid, he explains after setting the container down, his family stocked a basement barrel with water and cans of food, fearing the apocalyptic fallout of a nuclear attack. These days, a different looming crisis worries him. “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades,” he tells a rapt audience, “it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus.” And unlike the Gates clan rationing amid the Cold War, the world hasn’t invested enough in stopping a public health catastrophe: “We’re not ready for the next epidemic.”
Pause. You check the video’s opening again. “March 2015.” You knew this. You’re watching in the spring of 2020 because the coronavirus pandemic has claimed thousands of lives and exposed an ill-prepared government. More precisely, you’re watching because the clip has gone, er, viral, its contents so prescient that conspiracy theorists (think Soros truthers) suspect Gates himself has concocted the virus to further the interests of his foundation, which had dubbed the 2010s the “decade of vaccines.”
A less cynical viewer, however, might have questioned why the country had stopped paying attention to this oracle’s global health agenda, his foresight manifest in the software juggernaut he’d built decades prior. Was it the drab sweaters? The squawky voice? The admirable, but often distant, mission of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation?
Whatever the reason, we’d bookmarked his brilliance for later. Amid a cacophony of political partisanship this spring, podcasters and pundits asked this voice of science to predict our future, to describe how projects his foundation had backed—treatments, case models, vaccine distribution—would help us defeat Covid-19. They allowed him to upload the latest application of his genius to our collective consciousness, just as he moved closer to archiving his original one.
The news was easy to miss. While the country retreated into quarantine, Gates quietly departed Microsoft’s board of directors in mid-March to devote more time to his philanthropic endeavors. “Stepping down from the board in no way means stepping away from the company,” Gates wrote in a LinkedIn post that noted he’d still advise CEO Satya Nadella.
But Gates’s exit signaled one more step toward Cairo and New Delhi and, yes, Seattle,
where he’s built a formidable organization sans the rapacious rise that maligned his last.
In a dark Redmond conference room, Bill Gates sneers. Slouching in his chair, he dons the orange jumpsuit of tech’s founder class—a stuffy suit and tie—as he dodges questions from David Boies in a videotaped deposition. The relentless litigator represents the government in United States v. Microsoft Corp, the seminal antitrust case against Microsoft for binding features like its web browser, Internet Explorer, to its operating system, Windows, in order to squash industry upstarts.
By this August day in 1998 the company’s market share in the PC operating system space had inched dangerously close to 100 percent, its domination of the software world drawing comparisons to Standard Oil. “Gates controls the computer industry to an extent matched by no other person in any other major industry,” New Yorker writer John Seabrook observed in 1993.
Gates made for an unlikely Rockefeller; geeks weren’t so threatening back then. Pictures from his early Microsoft years seemed to inform the image of a computer nerd—bespectacled, gawky—in pop culture.
At the same time, he and Lakeside School chum Paul Allen configured a force in the scaling software realm. The founders’ famous split underscored their differences: Gates the ruthless capitalist, Allen the Renaissance man. An omnipresent Windows 95 rollout further ensconced Gates as a conqueror of competition and made him Forbes’s richest person in the world. The company constructed a veritable compound in Redmond with a pond dubbed “Lake Bill.”
But Gates’s evasive deposition presaged a loosening of his grasp on the industry. Though it didn’t break up the company, the antitrust case saddled Microsoft with more oversight and less sway over tech’s future. “It changed the way Microsoft had to do business,” says Harry First, a co-author of The Microsoft Antitrust Cases.
In 2000, Gates stepped down as CEO, the trial still unresolved. It wasn't a departure. He remained with the company as chief software architect and chairman of the board. But while counterparts like Jobs and Bezos claimed consumer glory, Gates began to venture into a new domain.
As he gradually ceded control at Microsoft, Gates didn’t resign himself to a narrowed scope of influence. The same year he vacated his CEO position, he teamed up with his wife, Melinda, to form a philanthropic machine derived from their massive wealth and an organization founded by Bill's father, William Gates Sr., who died on September 15. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would aim to conquer the world’s biggest problems in a variety of arenas, foremost the education and health sectors. Over the next two decades, the Seattle-based charity would donate more than $15 billion to the latter cause. “The Gates Foundation is, in many senses, the major actor in global health,” says Dr. Christopher Murray, the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
The health research center launched with the Gates Foundation’s backing in 2007. A nearly $400 million commitment allowed the institute at UW Medicine to fine-tune its measurements of global health crises just in time for our most urgent one. IHME’s coronavirus case models and projections have helped guide pandemic decision-making everywhere from the governor’s mansion to the White House.
The foundation moved swiftly to fund nascent response efforts. It developed a therapeutics accelerator to expedite research into Covid-19 treatments and clinical trials; partnered with the Serum Institute of India to plan the distribution of $3 vaccine shots to low- and middle-income countries; and funded local efforts, including the work of Public Health—Seattle and King County, to curb the virus in and around Seattle. In total, the foundation summoned more than $500 million to aid the global response to Covid-19 during the pandemic’s initial months. “This has the foundation’s total attention,” Gates told the Financial Times. (The organization declined an interview request for this story.)
The foundation’s support doesn’t guarantee success, but its grants amount to more than a billionaire throwing money around to prove his benevolence. “It’s not good enough just to say, ‘Oh, this feels like a good thing to do,’” says Murray. “He wants to know, what is the strength of the evidence to support a particular action over another one?”
He doesn’t skip the science, either. In meetings with Murray, Gates will cite the latest research on tuberculosis drugs and vaccines one moment. The next, he’ll ponder the causes of poverty in Africa. “He’ll know all the studies,” says Murray.
Climate change comes up often. Gates wants to convince the world that harnessing nuclear energy is vital to combatting our next global crisis.
After his latest prophesy, who could doubt him? Still, he might want to leave the barrel at home this time.
1975 Gates and Lakeside School pal Paul Allen go from hacking class schedules to founding a software startup called Microsoft.
1981 IBM chooses MS-DOS as the operating system for its Personal Computer, or PC.
1985 Windows replaces the dull commands of MS-DOS with point-and-click navigation between different screens, or “windows.”
1986 Microsoft relocates to Redmond.
1989 Word, up: Microsoft Office suite launches.
1995 Microsoft sells millions of copies of Windows 95. Gates claims Forbes’s richest person in the world title for the first time.
1998 U.S. Department of Justice brings antitrust case against Microsoft for bundling features, like Internet Explorer, with
its operating system.
2000 Steve Ballmer takes over as CEO. Bill forms a foundation with wife Melinda.
2001 Microsoft settles the antitrust case with the DOJ. More oversight, but no company breakup.
2008 After spending nearly a decade as chief software architect, Gates relinquishes day-to-day duties at Microsoft.
2014 Gates steps down as Microsoft chairman. Satya Nadella replaces Ballmer, ushering in the cloud era.
March 2020 Gates leaves the board.