Even though Bill Gates has only a limited role at Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) as an advisor to CEO Satya Nadella, he will forever remain closely linked with the company he created.
And, no matter how much charity work the one-time CEO does (and the foundation in his and his wife's name is truly awe inspiring) he will always be associated with the battle between Microsoft and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL). That rivalry may have dimmed a bit in recent years and grown less intense since Gates sidelined himself and Steve Jobs passed away, but the companies will forever be measured against each other.
Because of that any time Gates speaks about the company he battled against for so many years his words take on extra weight. The semi-retired (at least from for-profit work) CEO no longer speaks for Microsoft in an official way, but he still embodies the brand as much as Col. Sanders does Kentucky Fried Chicken or Tom Brokaw does for NBC news.
It's also worth noting that aside from being a vocal advocate for the various charities and causes his foundation supports, Gates rarely makes bold public statements. That, along with his past history with Apple, made it big news when Gates weighed in on the iPhone makers current battle with the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
What is the controversy about?
Apple is fighting a court order to break the encryption on an iPhone used by terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook in a San Bernadino shooting that killed 14 people. CEO Tim Cook released a letter to the public where he explained why his company was not complying with the FBI's request.
We have great respect for the professionals at the FBI, and we believe their intentions are good. Up to this point, we have done everything that is both within our power and within the law to help them. But now the U.S. government has asked us for something we simply do not have, and something we consider too dangerous to create. They have asked us to build a backdoor to the iPhone.
Specifically, the FBI wants us to make a new version of the iPhone operating system, circumventing several important security features, and install it on an iPhone recovered during the investigation. In the wrong hands, this software -- which does not exist today -- would have the potential to unlock any iPhone in someone's physical possession.
This is a case where law enforcement simply wants to push forward and learn everything it can about the crime while Apple is seeking to avoid doing short-term good while unlocking the capacity for long-term evil.
Alpahabet's Google CEO Sundar Pichai, along with Reform Government Surveillance, a coalition of companies including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others, have backed Apple in its decision, Bloomberg reported.
What did Gates say?
The one-time Microsoft CEO and current board of directors member appeared to break ranks from his technology world peers in an interview with The Financial Times.
"This is a specific case where the government is asking for access to information. They are not asking for some general thing, they are asking for a particular case," Gates said. "It is no different than [the question of] should anybody ever have been able to tell the phone company to get information, should anybody be able to get at bank records. Let's say the bank had tied a ribbon round the disk drive and said, 'Don't make me cut this ribbon because you'll make me cut it many times'."
After that interview was published Gates has released further comments saying he was "disappointed" in how his remarks were interpreted, according to Bloomberg. But, his remarks to the news organization only clarified his earlier comments. They did not backtrack or offer support for Apple.
"I was disappointed because that doesn't state my view on this," Gates said. "I do believe that with the right safeguards, there are cases where the government on our behalf -- like stopping terrorism, which could get worse in the future -- that that is valuable."
What does this mean?
The challenge in this case is that Gates is right as is the FBI as is Apple. This is not a simple question because law enforcement has a responsibility to keep the American public safe and business should not normally stand in the way of that. But, in this situation, Apple is arguing that doing what is being asked could cause more harm than good.
Gates clearly does not buy that argument and it's likely that some of the American public will agree which could cause a small backlash against Apple, perhaps even meaningful boycotts.
But, in reality Apple is simply taking a bullet for the rest of the technology issue because in fighting this -- perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court -- rules will be established that create precedent for future cases. Current law simply does not have an answer dispute and it's not unreasonable for Cook and his company to be legally fighting the FBI's request.
Gates has his point -- even if he sort of says he's not siding against Apple -- and his voice absolutely speaks for millions of people, but this is not a case of a corporation simply being obstructionist for business reasons. This is Apple believing that complying would expose its customers to further grievous privacy breaches and it's possible that might be more dangerous than the FBI not getting access to this iPhone in this one case.
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Daniel Kline owns shares of Facebook. He admires Bill Gates both for his business acumen and his clear comfort in being himself. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), and Facebook. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.