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Gates is good to his friends

Bill Gates may wield a reputation for cunning and ruthlessness, but he certainly is good to his friends.

Bill Gates may wield a reputation for cunning and ruthlessness, but he certainly is good to his friends.

Popular opinion aside, Microsoft stands out as a weird, almost humane, exception in the corporate world. It commands more economic clout than most nations and is run by two guys who met in a dorm. A substantial portion of its shares are still owned by a high school pal who went his own way years ago. Turnover, especially at the high end, remains relatively low.

In the middle of it sits Gates, who seems to cede and retain control and wealth simultaneously. Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's effective No. 2 man, might have been still slogging away as a product marketing flunky at Procter and Gamble if Gates hadn't called on him to work at Microsoft. In any event, it's unlikely that without Gates Ballmer would have become, as he is, the tenth richest person on the planet.

One of the paradoxes of the working world is that companies that set out to serve the greater good of humankind are generally the worst to work for. Ground-breaking ideas for transforming society erupt into shouting matches. Holiday parties become venues for palace coups. One person once told me that on his last day at a company that stressed "caring and understanding," somebody decked a secretary for making a typographical error. On the other side of the coin, you will see boring stapler companies handing out "30 years of service" awards.

No greater contrast of this exists than the divergence between Apple and Microsoft. No matter how much we love to hate Microsoft, you have to admit that employees of the soulless corporation seem to treat each other more humanely than the raving egomaniacs at Empowerment Incorporated. Microsoft is really a '70s version of Hewlett-Packard, the original folksy high-tech corporation founded in a garage. Gives you the creeps, doesn't it?

Since its inception, Apple has envisioned itself as the self-appointed champion of individual freedom and worldwide arbiter of taste. To that end, executives were seemingly picked as much for their panache as their ability to draw a pie graph.