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Tuesday, 4 April, 2000, 16:16 GMT 17:16 UK
Gates of hell or heaven?

Monday mornings, bank queues, green jelly beans, Microsoft - the things we all hate, or are at least supposed to loath.

Microsoft, the giant US software company whose products run 80% of the world's personal computers, is roundly despised, according to lore.

Bill Gates, the driving force behind a company which boasts annual sales of some $20bn, is almost unique amongst successful tycoons.

The Microsoft Trial
In the United States, a land which prides itself on celebrating the achievements of pioneers and entrepreneurs, William H Gates III - perhaps the greatest pioneer and entrepreneur of all time - is more often than not vilified.

Bill Gates and PM Tony Blair
Hands on management: Gates tops power lists
The world's richest man and a regular leader in polls of the most powerful figures, often beating elected politicians, Bill Gates' travails at the hands of the US courts have delighted many.

Microsoft has lost its coveted position as the world's most valuable company, its market capitalisation falling by $80bn to $470.5bn with the news it could be broken up.

Dr Stephen Burman, from the American Studies department at University of Sussex, says the response to Bill Gates in the US is not motivated by jealously.

"Generally there's less envy of great wealth in America, the population tends to celebrate the amassing of huge fortunes."

Consuming passion

However, in a land where the consumer is king, even a whiff of anti-competitive behaviour can prompt public anger.

"They're quite happy for people to make money, but not through a monopoly," says Dr Burman.

Hate may be too strong a word for the feeling most of us have towards Microsoft, its software or even the super-rich Bill Gates.

Bill Gates with Windows 2000
Love me, love my product
Mark Brosnan, principal lecturer in psychology at Greenwich University, says the notion that Microsoft is despised may come from the environment in which we encounter its products.

"Some of today's most stressful jobs are in offices or IT. Computer technology was introduced with the promise it would make our working lives easier. That has proved to be a myth."

If our PCs don't work in the way we want them to or don't produce the results we desire, we may find ourselves raging against the machine, and those behind it.

"People may well blame the software designers for the problems they experience during their hectic working day," says Mr Brosnan.

Soft target

Dr Adam Joinson, from the Open University, agrees computers can be a source of intense frustration in our daily lives.

"However, software products like those made by Microsoft have brought joy to many people's lives by transforming the way they communicate."

Bill Gates
Visionary to some, villain to others
Dr Joinson says some of Microsoft's most vociferous critics come from a hardcore of internet users.

"There is a tendency for a relatively small community to see the commercialisation of the internet as spoiling it. They see Microsoft as heralding this rise of commercialisation."

The net abounds with sites attacking the Seattle-based company.

Surfers can "punch", "decapitate" and even dress up virtual Bill Gates.

Pocket watch

A site run by Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist Philip Greenspun keeps close tabs on Gates' personal fortune on a "wealth clock".

Mr Greenspun juxtaposes this telephone number-sized figure with complaints about Microsoft products, Bill Gates jokes and critiques of his philanthropic activities.

Bill Gates gets a pie in the face
Pie eyed: Another satisfied customer
Some homepages go as far as to assert Gates is Satan.

Emboldened by a rather generous Bible interpretation and the "American Standard Code for Information Interchange", they decode Bill Gates III, MS-DOS 6.21 and Windows 95 as 666, the number of the beast.

While lacking taste, such sites are irreverent rather than malignant. However, Microsoft's detractors are often moved from words to action.

The company is a popular target for hackers, who say they are keen to point out the security flaws they claim "riddle" its ubiquitous products.

Hack attack

Microsoft's strenuous denials of any such failings seem only to encourage further attacks and greater contempt among its detractors.

The hack attacks range from the recent closing down of Microsoft's Hotmail e-mail network, to the odd claim by a Welsh teenager that he had uncovered Bill Gates' credit card details.

If Bill Gates is indeed a hated figure, it may be his high public profile that is to blame.

Bill Gates and Richard Branson
Gates' mate: Bill and Branson
Like Britain's Sir Richard Branson, Gates is a familiar enough figure to attract the attentions of satirists and even pie-wielding pranksters.

Even the tycoon's attempts to rebrand himself as a "micro-softie", by stepping back for the cut and thrust of business and setting up a $17bn charitable foundation, have cut little ice.

Online magazine greeted the news of the college drop-out's "soft retirement" with some waspish suggestions about his motivations:

"9. Realised the only way all the bugs in Windows would ever get fixed is if he did it himself.

"10. Time to go back to Harvard and finish his BA."

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See also:

04 Apr 00 | Business
Microsoft vows to fight on
04 Apr 00 | Business
Microsoft: No longer the biggest
22 Feb 00 | Microsoft
What's it all about?
11 Feb 00 | UK
A - Z: Hack attack
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