His father was a successful attorney, and it was expected that young Bill would follow in his father's footsteps. He was a notably gifted student who did well in all subjects but showed a special aptitude for mathematics. When he was 13, his parents believed he was not being challenged in his public school and enrolled him in the private and highly demanding Lakeside School. The school acquired a computer terminal and young Bill Gates was immediately fascinated. He and a small group of friends, including his future business partner Paul Allen, took every opportunity to explore the possibilities of the new technology, teaching themselves the basics of computer programming.
Soon Gates and his friends were working part-time and summers, writing computer programs for large businesses around the Seattle area. Although they were all precociously gifted programmers, it became clear that Gates had a unique talent for business as well, and he quickly emerged as the leader of the group. Gates and Paul Allen closely followed events in the computer industry and foresaw that the development of microprocessors would lead to the creation of compact affordable, personal computer that would someday supplant the bulky mainframe systems used in business and industry.
Meanwhile, Gates continued to excel in his studies and followed his parents' wishes by going to Harvard.
Paul Allen soon moved to Boston to work for Honeywell and continue their collaboration. The pair were galvanized by a cover story in Popular Electronics, promoting the Altair 8800, an inexpensive microcomputer produced by a company called MITS in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gates and Allen saw this as the beginning of a new industry. No one had yet developed software for the Altair, and the young programmers saw a unique opportunity. They adapted the computer language BASIC to run on the new device, although they had never actually seen one. On the strength of this programming feat, they secured a software development contract with MITS. With irresistible business opportunities beckoning, Gates left Harvard at the beginning of his junior year to make the leap into the world of business. Along with Paul Allen, he moved to New Mexico at the end of 1975 to produce software for MITS. The following year, they started their own company, Microsoft.
After MITS was sold, Gates moved Microsoft to Bellevue, Washington, near his hometown of Seattle, a choice that would make the Pacific Northwest a center of the computer software industry. The Altair, along with personal computers produced by Atari, Commodore, and other industry pioneers, enjoyed popularity with hobbyists and computer aficionados, but had not achieved a comparable sucess with business or the general public, a vast untapped market. The dominant player in the computer industry, IBM, had long resisted the concept of the personal computer, because mainframe systems were the heart of its business. When IBM finally decided to make the move into manufacturing personal computers in 1980, it turned to Gates and Microsoft to produce an operating system.
Gates bought an existing program, QDOS, and adapted it to the IBM hardware. He named his program Microsoft Disk Operating System, or MS-DOS. In his agreement with IBM, Gates was careful to retain the right to license MS-DOS to other hardware manufacturers as well. This may have been the single most momentous decision in business history. When the IBM PC became a success, other manufacturers rushed to create less expensive DOS-based personal computers. Microsoft's operating system became the universal standard as personal computer use exploded around the world. The only noteworthy competitor in personal computer operating systems, Apple, had made the opposite decision; the Macintosh operating system could only run on Apple Macintosh computers, and Apple never gained more than a fraction of the worldwide desktop computer market.
Apple's one advantage appeared to be the ease of use of its graphic user interface, but Microsoft quickly met that challenge with the 1985 introduction of Windows, a DOS-based graphic interface. With most of the world's personal computers running MS-DOS and Windows, Gates had a perfect market for compatible software applications. Within a few years the applications in Microsoft's office suite had become the leaders in their respective categories: Microsoft Word for word processing, Excel for creating spreadsheets, PowerPoint for slideshow-style graphic presentation, and Internet Explorer for browsing the increasingly popular World Wide Web.
In 1989, Gates founded Corbis, a digital image licensing company that acquired historic collections of photographs, such as the Bettmann Archive. Among other business interests, he has served as a director of the investment company Berkshire Hathaway and holds a controlling interest in a private investment firm and holding company, Cascade Investments LLC.
Meanwhile, the personal computer -- and Microsoft software -- revolutionized the worlds of work and recreation. Microsoft became an enormous international corporation, and by 1995, its Chairman, CEO and largest shareholder, Bill Gates, was the world's richest man, a title he has retained almost every year since.
There were challenges along the way -- a patent infringement suit from Apple over the design of the Windows interface, and a 1988 anti-trust suit brought by the United States government when it appeared that Microsoft's dominant position in the industry had become a virtual monopoly. Microsoft survived these legal battles, and remains the preeminent producer of software for the home and office.
In 1994 Bill Gates married the former Melinda French. The couple built a technologically advanced house overlooking Lake Washington. They have three children. At the height of his success, Gates turned his attention from business to philanthropy. In 2000, he and his wife founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and have given over $28 billion to charities focused on scientific research and international development. The same year, Bill Gates stepped down as Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft, though he remains Chairman of the Board of Directors. Since 2008, he has devoted his energies to the direction of the Gates Foundation, applying his entrepreneurial expertise to combating disease and poverty around the world.