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Bill Gates reboots

BILL GATES’ ANNOUNCEMENT on Thursday that he was phasing himself out of Microsoft’s day-to-day operations drew the predictable round of cheers from Microsoft bashers, of which there is no shortage. Even some of the company’s backers had yearned for a management shake-up at the company, whose marquee product -- the next version of Windows, dubbed Vista -- has suffered repeated delays and whose once-unstoppable stock has languished.

For Microsoft’s customers, competitors and investors, however, the change is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Gates handed over the CEO job to Steve Ballmer in 2000. The latest move affects only his title as chief software architect, plus his formal roles in research and policy; he will remain chairman of the board and a part-time strategic advisor.

Instead, the people likely to be most affected by Gates’ gradual retreat from Microsoft are victims of AIDS and malaria, the impoverished in the Third World and students here in the U.S. They’re the focus of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which will be Gates’ full-time pursuit in two years.

The creation of the foundation in 2000 was a revolutionary moment in American philanthropy. Most wealthy donors had been giving their money to ego-driven projects, such as edifices named after themselves at universities or medical centers; even the Getty Foundation, which has helped preserve some of the world’s great artistic treasures, was dedicated to a cultural rather than a social good. Gates set out to use his billions to solve the most pressing problems in the world: poverty, ignorance and disease.

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Though now it’s fashionable for celebrities to devote their time and energy toward Africa, Gates’ interest preceded theirs. His foundation remains the largest private donor toward causes such as fighting AIDS and malaria in the Third World. Indeed, some credit Gates with helping to spark the worldwide focus on Africa and poverty reduction that has boosted aid from the governments of industrialized nations, including the United States.

Historians and technology analysts will debate Gates’ role in the rise of the Digital Era long after the personal computer has been forgotten. But his legacy may well rest upon what he does in the next few decades, not what he did in the last few.


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