Why I think Bill Gates is wrong about Google

Why I think Bill Gates is wrong about Google

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There is a fascinating debate going on right now that will genuinely impact millions, if not billions, of people. It is something I am really passionate about, so I wanted to take the time to share my view on it.

Bill Gates has recently criticised Google’s approach to philanthropy – in particular, one of their more ambitious and futuristic initiatives – Project Loon. (Click to Tweet)

Project Loon aims to bring the internet to everyone on the planet through a network of free-floating balloons. It sounds crazy, but it was tested earlier this summer in New Zealand with considerable success. It is a potentially world-changing project.

Gates challenged this in a recent interview: “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhoea… there’s no website that relieves that. Certainly I’m a huge believer in the digital revolution. And connecting up primary health-care centers, connecting up schools, those are good things. But no, those are not, for the really low-income countries, unless you directly say we’re going to do something about malaria.”

This statement highlights the vastly different approaches that Gates, Microsoft, and Google have taken to making a difference in the world. If the internet had been around in 1943 when Maslow developed his hierarchy of needs, I am sure he would have put ‘internet access’ close to the bottom; yet today, an internet connection is becoming the number one human need.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the data: the fastest developing countries in the world right now are in Africa, and this progress is not thanks to aid programs provided by first world countries, but because of one piece of technology – the mobile phone. For example, mobile payment software creates opportunities for businesses; farmers receive sales, stock and market information – in addition to the whole industry of selling air time and handsets. Yes – the mobile phone has done more to address poverty than decades of charity aid.

Gates has left Microsoft and now runs the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, dedicated to improving health around the world. It has committed over $2 billion in grants towards fighting malaria and more than $1.4 billion to fight AIDS and tuberculosis. They work with a broad array of partners— government agencies, multilateral organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), academic institutions, community organisations, and private industry— all with the goal of ultimately eradicating diseases like malaria.

Google is scaling down many of its non-core activities to focus on doing a few things really well. It looks like Google are winning the corporate race, and I predict that they will probably create more global impact too.

Don’t get me wrong, Gates’ foundation is not doing a bad thing. It’s great that he has dedicated the rest of his life to making a difference in the world. I just think he underestimates the impact that Google will have in the world through aligning their impact with their own core  interests.

Microsoft is struggling, and will struggle even more in years to come. They were late in understanding the potential of the internet, the Cloud and mobile technology. They are a highly complex organisation without a clear vision of their purpose in the world. I will be very impressed if they are still in existence in 20 years’ time, given how far behind they are now.

Whereas Google is rising, and being radically simplified under Larry Page’s leadership. They are also investing in so-called ‘moonshot’ projects like Project Loon, Google Glass and the Self-Driving Car. These are all hugely progressive technologies with implications for the entire human race; all aligned with Google’s financial interests of getting more people connected to the internet, more of the time.

Google makes money out of progressing the world. It is not perfect, but it is having a more positive global impact than most other organisations. That should be commended, rather than criticised. Gates is critical that many of Google’s philanthropic efforts, as  non-core activities, have been stopped since Page has taken over. (click to tweet)

Gates said: “Google started out saying they were going to do a broad set of things. They hired Larry Brilliant, and they got fantastic publicity. And then they shut it all down. Now they’re just doing their core thing. Fine. But the actors who just do their core thing are not going to uplift the poor.”

I think Gates is missing the point. He is spending his wealth on tackling a big problem. Larry Page and Google are generating wealth in tackling huge problems, which I believe is far more sustainable in the long term. Google’s focus on alignment and core purpose will in the end keep them alive and the world will progress greatly as a result. Who knows what their next generations of bold projects will be, and their impact over the decades to come?

OK, I get why Gates is doing what he does. But I don’t get why he is critical of Google’s more sustainable, aligned approach to having impact. Although you could argue that Microsoft has had a huge positive impact by democratising the PC (if you ignore the swear words uttered at their products), Gates waited to grow old and retire before he decided to make a big difference in the world. Page is doing it through his day job, on a massive scale, while still relatively young.

The ubiquitous internet connection, or the ultra cheap point-to-point transport potential of self-driving cars lift the base out of poverty, giving people the time, means and information to solve their own problems. Gates is adopting a classic, paternalistic top-down approach to solving world problems. Page’s is a bottom-up approach. It is the often indirect benefit and impact of the technology’s potential to solve world problems that delivers much greater impact over time.

One approach is about ordered improvement, with rich people giving solutions. The other is an organic approach, building technological and communication infrastructures, and a trust that addressing chaos will nurture the growth of previously unimagined solutions from unlikely places. What solutions will the poor of today provide for themselves, with connection, transport, education, healthcare, finance? It all derives from creating community platforms, and not from handouts. For me, that is where Gates lacks vision while Page is thinking bigger and longer term.

Sure, there is a very real requirement for traditional aid in the short term, but I don’t believe that traditional aid and handouts are the most effective long term use of funds, given the alternatives.

What will make the greatest difference is the provision of sustainable, profitable global  platforms for people to share ideas and innovate to solve their own problems.

My provocation is that the world would be a better place if more people chose Google’s approach, rather than Gates’.

I would love to know what you think on this. Which do you think is the way to change the world with the highest impact – and why? Should Gates have been critical of the approach adopted by Google? Do you have a better way? ‘Speak your mind’ in the comments section below.

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  1. Hi Marc – I thought Gate’s comments came across particulary badly given he is a tech entrepreneur! Sure, for that kid literally dying of Malaria the Google balloon isn’t going to help much – but the point is education/knowledge is the key foundation of any developed nation. Google’s balloons will provide cheap access to knowledge and this has the potential to lift countries out of poverty and as a result cure more illness (among other things) than the foundation. Matt

  2. I thought so too Matt. The mind boggles. Thanks for your comment!

  3. I think both approaches need to co-exist as they both aim to help. Now that I am in AIDS, Malaria & Tuberculosis world, I see that a lot of the money is going to also building infrastructure to fight diseases and not only handing out free drugs or mosquito nets. I think no one should criticise anything that helps to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. The potential that can be unlocked by access to information is almost unlimited, but the potential that can be unlocked by access to information of helathy individuals IS unlimited.

    • I agree with what Gates is doing in his own quest although he could probably really increase leverage from taking lessons from things like the XPrize. I just have a problem with his view on what Google are doing. It is the diversity and chaos of the fight that will solve our problems not one particular method. Gates lacks vision in that respect I feel. He doesn’t lack passion for taking on a big and worthy problem though!

  4. Gates is approaching one or two problems in a pinpoint fashion, while Google is empowering people; that’s a few orders of magnitude better.

  5. I have no problem with Gates thinking the way he does and expressing himself as he does. It is his opinion which he is entitled to anyway. The problem is the amount of airtime and influence he has on policies and direction of action by the simple virtue of him being a ruthless entrepreneur in his younger days. The billions he commands right now are not a qualification to be an expert in Malaria and what sub-saharan nations need.

    Ubiquitous information by way of floating balloons is welcome alongside his investment in combating malaria.

    • I agree Mark. I certainly hear back from contacts in Africa that a lot of the money is being wasted. There are more effective policies to come in the future I am sure. Thanks for your comment.

  6. Melanie Kovero says

    Agree. 30 years ago I got ‘into’ computers, believing tech would make life easier/ happier for many. Google’s plan to give worldwide internet access is the smartest way to make the world a fairer place.
    Thankyou. Just discovered your blog via Martin Shevrington. And spent last 4 hours reading it. Inspiring and consoling. How about having the facility to give a post a thumbs up? Reading the posts and comments I could not formulate the words to write what I thought. Yet I was either nodding or shaking my head.
    To spread the love have shared/ emailed at least 10.

    either nodding or shaking my head frequently

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