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Microsoft and General Gates

What global image problems is Microsoft encountering — thanks to the U.S. government?

October 11, 2007

What global image problems is Microsoft encountering — thanks to the U.S. government?

Clearly, few people in the modern world have become as much of an icon as has Bill Gates, Microsoft’s co-founder, chairman and long-time driving force.

In light of the countless portrayals of him as nerdish on a personal level and domineering in his business practices, everybody can easily understand that the world’s second-richest man has long been concerned about his public image.

What has helped him enormously in that endeavor, on a subliminal level, is that Chairman Gates — even at the now not-so-tender age of 41 years — has never shed the looks of the high school boy next door, bookish yet lovable.

The falsetto pitch of his voice, too, helps naturally to underscore the notion that this man, on a person-to-person level, seems like no threat.

And of course, his enlightened strategy — with the creation of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — to begin divesting himself of his personal wealth further helps to create a softer image for him.

The rise of Google also contributes to softening the edges of the Gates image. Microsoft and himself just don’t seem like such an overpowering menace.

In fact, comparing the two companies — and their respective place in the global corporate universe — it’s almost as if Microsoft has taken on a staid image.

Amidst all those shifts, the European Court of First Instance’s decision in mid-September 2007 to uphold the fines imposed on Microsoft for constructing its software packages in a closed-shop, anti-competitive fashion was not exactly welcomed news for the people in Redmond.

However, if the firm’s lawyers and business execs had been less macho — and more politically attuned — they would have realized long ago that it would lose the battle in Europe.

What then is the really bad image-related news mentioned at the outset for both Microsoft and Mr. Gates?

Let me ask you this: Have you read any Gates-related news lately? If you did, then surely these two must have turned your head and sent a shiver down your spine:

– “Gates Seeks $190 Billion for Wars”

– “Gates to Approve Expansion of Army”

What devious scheme is this that has Mr. Gates invest his assets — and, quite possibly, those of his foundation — apparently in wars pursued on behalf of the United States? And why on earth is it his business to approve the expansion of the U.S. military?

With apologies to Dwight Eisenhower and his concerns in the 1950s about the military-industrial complex, could this foreshadow the emergence of an SMC — software military complex — in the United States?

Darker thoughts emerge as well. Everybody knows that the U.S. military is finding that the recruiting pool from which it can draw more manpower is shrinking about as fast as the water table under Beijing.

Is Bill Gates, in an act of patriotism, secretly providing off-budget incentives to lure people into military service? To be sure, the story headlines at least hint at that, claiming “Goal is 74,000 Soldiers Over 4 Years.”

Only after a while does it emerge that something may be wrong with this slew of stories. Some of them carry a photo of “Mr. Gates” accompanying the news story.

Trouble is, that man does not look like Bill Gates. Could the photo editor have been sloppy — and simply pulled the wrong .gif file? Well, maybe, but why would it happen a few days later again? And then again?

The man in the photo indeed looks like the late fifty-ish, WASPy chairman of any large U.S. corporation, a touch pudgy in the face, with a mouth showing off executive determination and the prototypical crown of silver grey hair.

Then there are the alert eyes which actually give the sum total of the face a pleasant, approachable, slightly avuncular expression.

So who is this man? Well, it turns out that he is primarily known as the man who has become the feisty and fierce and fire-spouting Donald Rumsfeld’s successor — in the post of U.S. Secretary of Defense. The man’s name? Bob Gates, not Bill Gates.

Given the total media over-exposure so ardently pursued by the ever-present, domineering Mr. Rumsfeld, Bob Gates believed with good reason that he had to act very differently.

The man should clearly be lauded for having his ego under firm control. But from Microsoft’s viewpoint, Bob Gates’s personal modesty has had some very undesirable consequences.

Our global media democracy is characterized by a plethora of ever busier, ever more time-constrained citizens. In the prevailing contemporary stimulus-response pattern, they have their eyes trained to take in information in fragments of a second.

The keyword “Gates” in a headline about U.S defense and the military sends off all sorts of wrong signals pertaining to Mr. (Bill) Gates, the presumed philanthropist and software king.

The fact that U.S. CEOs — also ones of otherwise very civilian mega-corporations — often like to wrap themselves in the patriotic-cum-military flag (witness, for example, Bob Nardelli, the deposed Chairman and CEO of Home Depot) means that Americans are broadly conditioned to expect such a close association of their big-name CEOs to the military.

No wonder that, under such circumstances, nobody is really surprised Mr. Gates is headlined with statements about war budgets and desired troop levels.

In most other countries, that risk of double-take would be non-existent. The military in the rest of the world has long lost the panache of hero worship.