Barney's Rubble

Saving the World: One Line at a Time

There's a heart underneath Microsoft's muscle.

Capitalism is all about exploitation -- making workers produce for owners more than they take home in wages. That's how Carnegie, Rockefeller and now Gates got so rich. Gordon Gecko worships this approach, while Karl Marx was less impressed.

In the old days, robber barons donated some of their proceeds to relieve a little guilt, and because charity cocktail parties rule! There wasn't a lot of oversight of their money, they gave it, scarfed champagne and a few truffles, and went straight back to making more.

The new generation has the potential to be so much different. Sure, they make their money the old fashioned way -- by bringing in more than they pay out. But when they give away these collected earnings, they apply the same discipline of capitalistic efficiency. The best example is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which watches its money closer than an accountant on a fixed income.

Super Barney

Microsoft Corp. is doing just as much, and probably way more good -- and profits remain a motive (am I starting to sound like an Ayn Rand rehash?). As you can see by our story "Can Microsoft Save the World?" Redmond researchers are working with scientists to craft new tools to fuel scientific breakthroughs. These folks are in the trenches, crafting vaccines, cures for cancer, ways to fight global warming -- even trying to find the origins of Life (which apparently pre-dates even Altair BASIC and MS-DOS!). This is a fundamentally new model of capitalism as much as it is a new model of software. For a public company to purposely devote resources (Microsoft Research is $6 billion to $7 billion and counting) to projects that may never make them a dime, or return dollars to them decades in the future, is pretty much unheard of.

Not everyone has the extra fundage for pure research the way Microsoft does. Even so, there may be ways others can apply the Redmond model. Food, drug, auto and energy companies could all make a difference by working with independent scientists on technologies that can save lives and the environment -- instead of buying up all the good patents. Maybe someday they could even make a buck or two by selling products that replace the need for oil, gas, surgery, refrigerators or even Windows XP.

And how do I hope to change the world? All my cash goes to buying Madonna CDs, K-Fed concert tickets (someone has to buy 'em!) and saving the mansions in Newport, R.I.

Do you think Microsoft can really do some good and, if so, how? Tell me at dbarney@redmondmag.com.

About the Author

Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.

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