SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) — Bill Gates spent his last day at Microsoft Friday, bidding a teary goodbye to the company he built into a global software colossus.
The Microsoft co-founder, 52, known for his boyish face and nerdy manner, will now focus on running the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation , aimed at fighting disease, reducing poverty, and improving education around the world.
"My life's work really is about software and working with incredible people," Gates told more than 800 Microsoft employees picked by lottery to attend his onstage farewell chat with chief executive Steve Ballmer at the company's campus in Redmond, Washington.
"There won't be a day in my life that I'm not thinking about Microsoft and the great things it's doing and wanting to help."
Paul Allen, who teamed up with Gates to start Microsoft in a garage in 1975, will be among those "roasting" his childhood friend at a gala retirement dinner late Friday.
Gates began programming computers when he was 13 and a student living in the northwestern US state of Washington.
"Very early he demonstrated this really insatiable curiosity," his father, William Gates Sr., said of his son in a video interview posted on the Microsoft website.
"He became a voracious reader. We knew he was smart, he was academically gifted, but we didn't have any impression there was something world class going on in our living room necessarily."
Gates and Allen were at the head of a small group of students that enjoyed working with the school's computer, sometimes sneaking through a window to get to the machine after hours, said former teacher Bill Dougall.
School officials tapped into his programming prowess, swapping computer time for his services.
One tale is that Gates tinkered with school computer programming to put himself in classes made up mostly of girls.
Gates took his passion for knowledge to Harvard University in 1973.
"Bill was intense in college," former college classmate Andy Braiterman said, listing academic subjects to which Gates was devoted.
"He was also very intense about pinball, Pong, Breakout (two early computer games) and most of all he was very intense about poker."
At Harvard Gates met Steve Ballmer, who became part of Microsoft and was promoted to chief executive in 2000.
Gates recalls being in Harvard Square when Allen showed him a magazine cover story about a computer advancement, and thinking "This is happening without us and we are going to miss it."
Gates, with the blessing of his lawyer father and teacher mom, left college after two years to start "Micro-soft" with Allen.
The duo bought the rights to existing computer software, modified it, got a copyright, and rechristened it Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS).
A key move by Gates was to focus on licensing software to computer makers in numerous "partnerships" that resulted in affordable machines being available to the masses.
In the early years at Microsoft, Gates reviewed every line of computer code and earned a reputation for not tolerating slow thinking.
Gates challenged developers with comments such as "I could write that over the weekend," according to original Microsoft employee Steve Wood.
"He kept people on their toes," Wood recalled. "We accomplished things that we otherwise never would have figured out we could have done."
Microsoft's slogan was "A computer on every desk and in every home" -- using, of course, its software.
Today more than 90 percent of the world's computers run on Microsoft software.
"Even the times that were the toughest, in some ways those were the ones that bond you the most," Gates said during a departure ceremony that ended with Ballmer giving him a photo scrap book and weeping.
"When IBM decides to attack you or some legal ruling isn't quite right and you have to do a press conference afterwards."
He drew laughter with the remark referring to Microsoft being slammed by US regulators on antitrust grounds for building its web browser into its market-dominating operating system.
Gates eases into retirement ranked the third richest person in the world, behind US investor Warren Buffet and Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim.
Gates and his wife, Melinda, live in an earth-friendly "smart home" on a swath of hillside overlooking a lake near Microsoft headquarters. The couple married in Hawaii in 1994 and has three children.
While seemingly aloof, Gates has a humorous side.
There are photos of him prancing in a superhero costume at a company party, and he made a comic "Bill's Last Day at Work" video that has received thousands of views on YouTube.
Gates remains Microsoft's largest single shareholder and chairman of company's board of directors.
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