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Technology dominance and charitable giving

LiveMint logoLiveMint 28-03-2017 Siddharth Pai

The business of technology can turn people into billionaires overnight. Well, that’s if you consider that in any field of human endeavour “overnight success” usually takes at least 15 years. Despite the complaints one hears about venture capitalists wanting quick returns on their investments, the battle for real dominance of a corner of the information technology space (IT) takes at least 15 years, after which the ruptures begin.

The fissures that cause the eventual rupture are several. Here are four: Some observers warn that both Amazon Inc. and its various businesses like Amazon Web Services are creating such a hegemony that they will soon begin to bait anti-monopoly legislation. Giants like International Business Machines Corp. and AT&T Inc. were broken up for similar reasons in the past. Google has run afoul of some its advertising customers this week, including the UK government, as it has become apparent that these advertisers’ commercials are featured before videos carrying objectionable content played on YouTube, one of that company’s subsidiaries. Meanwhile, many IT services firms are facing the growing squeeze of the double-ended vise of nationalism and automation; many firms with large employee-centric operations have cut down on hiring and some have even announced layoffs. Yet other firms simply lose their edge when it comes to innovation and start regurgitating old technology packaged as new. The road from there is often downhill. The introduction of a new red iPhone 7 has been in the news this week. Same innards, different hue.

However, this isn’t a column that’s only about the varying cycles of fortune for technology firms. Apple Inc.’s new phone isn’t just another marketing gimmick being employed by a tired firm whose critics say that it has been coming up short with respect to technological advances when compared with its competitors in the mobile handset business. Apple’s red devices are not new. Some years ago, it had created a series of red iPods with the object that some of the money from the sale of these devices would go to an AIDS foundation that was jointly created by Apple and by some-time musician and whole-time campaigner, Bono. A portion of the proceeds from sales of the new red iPhone 7 will similarly be disbursed to this charity.

Over the last several years, I have been fortunate enough to interact closely with almost every chairman or CEO in India’s IT sector, but Azim Premji is one of the few hyper-successful technology entrepreneurs whom I truly respect and admire. Not for his business-building skills, which in my estimation are about the same as those of anyone else who has been at the helm of these extraordinarily fortunate enterprises, but for the extent of his charitable giving. In January last year, Mint reported that he had donated Rs27,514 crore to various charitable initiatives, through the foundation that bears his name.

Bill Gates has also given generously of his fortune, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been involved in many philanthropic efforts all over the world. When at the height of his power as Microsoft Corp.’s boss during the 1990s, Gates was roundly criticized for not contributing to charity. Despite his detractors, he maintained that he would do so at the right time, and sure enough, the Gates Foundation ensued in the year 2000. It now has almost $40 billion in its corpus.

In contrast to Premji and Gates, and other technology titans who have also given generously, Steve Jobs, the iconoclast behind Apple’s success over the past decade or so, was famously niggardly with his public giving. However, his friend Bono came to his defence, disclosing in an op-ed piece Jobs’ and Apple’s contribution to charity, especially to Bono’s project RED, which is where some of the proceeds from Apple’s red devices go.

Jobs even famously refused to discuss the subject of his niggardliness with Walter Isaacson, his biographer. He preferred instead to focus on how much his work had changed the lives of millions of people—not only did he enrich himself and hundreds of employees at Apple, he said, the products that Apple produced had inarguably changed the lives of hundreds of millions. To be fair, that is exactly what Jobs did. He dedicated himself completely, despite his battle with cancer, to improving the company’s products. And the competitors who modelled their products on Apple’s groundbreaking iPhone have changed the lives of several hundred million more. There is the possibility, of course that Jobs donated anonymously. Perhaps he knew that giving is to be done quietly, and without publicity.

Then there is the third type of giver: the lavish spender. Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp. falls in this class. While he is not ungenerous by any stretch of the imagination, having donated hundreds of millions of dollars to charity, he is also profligate. Inc. magazine reports that when a judge unsealed court records in 2006 from a shareholder lawsuit, it was revealed that Ellison’s accountant had chastised him for repeatedly pushing his credit limit to the maximum with extravagant purchases including mansions, yachts, and luxury cars.

That said, the truth is that this sort of conspicuous consumption is itself charity in a manner of speaking—it creates jobs, and puts food on the tables of the people manufacturing these expensive items.

But the fourth class, the miser, may be the most generous of all. As Chanakya said: “No greater donor was ever born than the miser.” The miser donates everything when he dies without ever having touched his wealth. His left hand truly does not know what his right hand gives!

Siddharth Pai is a world-renowned technology consultant who has led over $20 billion in complex, first-of-a-kind outsourcing transactions.

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