Bill Gates has come out in support of the FBI's position in its battle with Apple Inc. (AAPL) over unlocking an iPhone owned by the employer of  Syed Rizwan Farook. In an interview with the Financial Times on Monday, Gates, a philanthropist and the founder of Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), questioned Apple CEO Tim Cook's position that writing the software necessary to unlock the iPhone would create a "back door" that law enforcement and potentially cybercriminals could exploit indefinitely. 

"Let’s say the bank had tied a ribbon round the disk drive," Gates told the FT, "and said ‘don’t make me cut this ribbon, because you’ll make me cut it many times.'" In other words, investigators are “not asking for some general thing" but dealing with "a particular case.” (See also, Apple, FBI Escalate Face-Off In Full Public View.)

In an interview with Bloomberg TV Tuesday morning, however, Gates appeared to disagree with the way the FT presented his statements, saying, "I was disappointed, because that doesn’t state my view on this." Citing the legacy of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, he emphasized the importance of "striking that balance" between security and privacy concerns.

Gates' views contrast with those of other tech leaders, such as Alphabet Inc. (GOOG, GOOGL) subsidiary Google Inc.'s CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook Inc.'s (FB) founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who have voiced support for Cook's position. 

Public Opinion With The FBI

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center has found that the American public tends to side with the FBI on the issue, though by a slim margin. Asked whether Apple should unlock the iPhone used by Farook, 51% answered yes. But 11% responded that they didn't know, putting the "should nots"  in a minority of 38%.

There were some slight variations in response according to age, education level and partisan identification. Older respondents were more likely to support unlocking the phone, while more educated respondents were more likely to oppose. Democrats were more likely to oppose unlocking the phone than Republicans, but the real disparity was among independents: 58% of Republican-leaning independents said unlock, versus 34% of Democratic-leaning independents.

Unsurprisingly, owning an iPhone made respondents more likely to oppose unlocking, compared to owners of other smartphones and respondents who don't own a smartphone. iPhone owners made up 333 of 1,002 respondents.

Skin In The Game?

Given the often heated competition between Macs and PCs, it's tempting to question Gates' motives in taking a position on this issue. But while he still advises CEO Satya Nadella, Gates has not had an official role at Microsoft since 2008, focusing instead on philanthropy. And while the Microsoft-Apple rivalry hasn't dissipated entirely, the battle to be the dominant desktop operating system is no longer as relevant as it once was.

The mobile revolution the iPhone helped launch has shifted the focus away from desktop computers, and now the cloud is increasingly attracting investors' attention. Microsoft is perceived to be better positioned in cloud computing than Apple, and the stocks' performance reflects that perception: Microsoft's shares are up around 23% in the past 12 months, while Apple's are down 24%. So perhaps the rivalry does still play a role.

The Bottom Line

A slight majority of the country and at least one billionaire technology entrepreneur think Apple should help the FBI unlock the iPhone used by San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. But as Gates points out, "the courts are going to decide this." Cook is unlikely to get the congressional involvement he wants, but if nothing else he can take comfort in the fact that his own customers support him more than the general public does.

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