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Gates thinks big, gives big

Bill Gates
Gates has been the richest man in the world for the past ten years, according to Forbes magazine.

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Bill Gates
Microsoft Corporation
Computer Software

(CNN) -- How do you measure Bill Gates' success?

Forbes magazine puts a dollar figure on the Seattle, Washington-area native's net worth -- $46.6 billion in 2003 -- and crowned him the world's richest person for the seventh year in a row.

His company, Microsoft, reports that it raked in $32.19 billion in revenues for the fiscal year ending in June 2003, ranking it among Fortune's top 50 largest U.S.-based corporations.

And by donating $600 million a year and creating a charitable foundation with a $26 billion endowment, Gates is the world's largest private giver, according to The Washington Post.

His trademark glasses and restrained speech notwithstanding, most everything about Gates is big -- his business, wealth and philanthropy. He's a hero to some; a reviled monopolist to others.

"I think we are a little bit like the Yankees in that we've got a good track record, and sometimes people get a kick out of saying if we don't win, 'Hey, that's fascinating, why didn't they win?'" Gates said in late March 2004 of Microsoft, according to the high-tech publication eWeek.

The son of an attorney and a schoolteacher, Gates began computer programming in 1968, when he was 13. He entered Harvard in 1973, where he befriended future Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Gates developed a version of the BASIC computer language for the first microcomputer, the MITS Altair, during his stint at Harvard.

Gates left college in his junior year and launched Microsoft with his childhood friend Paul Allen. As the personal computer market exploded, so did Microsoft, growing into the industry leader in computer software.

Microsoft's enormous success developing and selling word processing and Internet browser programs, operating systems and other applications not only made Gates a rich man, it also made his company a prime target for government regulators.

After four years of legal wrangling, Microsoft fended off a bid to break up the company -- accused of anti-trust violations -- by reaching a deal with the Justice Department and nine states.

"We recognize that we will be closely scrutinized by the government and our competitors, and we will devote all the time, energy and resources needed to ensure that we meet our responsibilities," said Gates after the settlement became official in fall 2002.

Earlier this year, the European Union ended a five-year investigation by unanimously finding Microsoft guilty of abusing the "near-monopoly" of its Windows PC operating system on the continent and fined it 497 million euros ($613 million). Microsoft has said it will appeal the ruling.

But such rulings against his company do not necessarily reflect animosity against Gates, who was knighted in January by Britain's Queen Elizabeth for his business and charitable efforts.

Shortly after the EU ruling, EU commissioner and former Finnish Finance Minister Erkki Liikanen called the Microsoft chairman "a good man," according to Financial Express. "He's one of the greatest businessmen I have met. I admire him for his charity work."

Gates' charitable organizations -- starting with the William H. Gates Foundation in 1994, which was combined with the Gates Learning Foundation in January 2000 to create the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- have donated billions of dollars for global health initiatives, education programs, libraries and other causes.

By 2003, the Gates' foundations had given $250 million to install 47,000 computers in 11,000 libraries in 50 states and Washington, D.C. The New York public schools received $51 million in fall 2003 to create 67 small public high schools in the city -- one of several substantial Gates Foundation grants for urban American schools.

In 1999, $750 million went to produce and provide vaccines worldwide -- part of an extensive, expensive global health program -- The Washington Post reported. Gates has also helped lead the fight against AIDS, donating hundreds of millions of dollars for prevention and drug programs in Africa, India and elsewhere.

"You need to feed people and cure people before you can begin the development cycle of education and entrepreneurship," Gates said in 2001, quoted by the business and technology Web site Red Herring.

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