Will the real Bill Gates please stand up?
By Margie Wylie
Staff Writer, CNET NEWS.COM
We just can't seem to get enough of Bill Gates.
No matter how many cover stories are written on him, no matter how many times he's probed and profiled on radio and TV, regardless of the book he's written or even his weekly syndicated column, we still want to know more.
Why does this 41-year-old billionaire inspire such curiosity? There are richer people in the world, if only a few. There are people who lead bigger companies in bigger industries. Maybe the public's intense curiosity springs from the fact that the more we see of Chairman Bill, the less we really know him.
Gates started his first software company when he was just 13 years old with a high school senior named Paul Allen. After dropping out of Harvard, where it's been told he cleaned out his fellow freshmen in late-night poker games, he and Allen started a little software company called Microsoft. Effectively swiping DOS from under the blue noses of IBM, he built Microsoft to its current status as world leader in the computer industry as much by sweat and determination as by any sort of technical or market genius.
Looking back at his trademark owlish spectacles, his propensity to label all opinions he didn't share as "random," and his junior high-schoolish hair helmet, it's easy to see how Gates was initially labeled as the nerd who got lucky. However, as his net worth has skyrocketed, so have the appraisals. Gates has been called a brilliant and ruthless businessman who single-mindedly pursues not only his own success but also the annihilation of his foes. That his company is aggressive has been amply demonstrated by the unending stream of antitrust complaints against Microsoft, but that tells us nothing about what we really want to know. Who is this guy?
With his newborn media empire (including joint venture MSNBC and online content investments like Slate, Cityscape, and Microsoft Network), Gates has been compared to other media tycoons and come up lacking the flair of a Rupert Murdoch or the passion of a William Randolph Hearst. When Gates purchased a famous collection of Leonardo da Vinci's writings, the press tried on him the ill-fitting cloak of Renaissance man. But any illusions of Gates as a visionary were dispelled by his unimaginative book The Road Ahead. Readers flocked to the it hoping to see the view from the inside of his head. What they got instead appeared to be a disinfected textbook devoid of all personality that even missed the Internet trend. His second edition, now out in paperback, makes a mechanical stab at personal detail and revolves almost entirely around the Internet phenomenon but still obscures any hint of humanity.
Still, as if looking for a reason why he's worth billions and we aren't, we sift through the minutiae. Recently, Gates's worth just hit the $20 billion mark, yet he requested Cherry Coke and spray cheese while waiting to be interviewed by Fox News. He lives near Seattle with his wife and new daughter, but is overseeing the construction of a multimillion-dollar house that seems more like a convention center than a billionaire's retreat.
Like one of those stereograms whose dots and squiggles refuse to come into focus no matter how long you stare at it, neither does any transcendent quality of greatness (even madness would do) materialize from what we know of Bill Gates. Either he's secreting some intense part of his personality the media will never touch--his previous relationship with firecracker Ann Winblad hints at that--or we're all searching in vain for something that he simply doesn't have.
For his part, Gates shrugs off personal scrutiny. He says "people are interested in my role as the leader of Microsoft." Maybe there is no there there. Maybe Gates is, like some of his software, Wysiwyg (what you see is what you get). We caught the Microsoft chief for a quick chat at Comdex. Judge for yourself.
You seem to spend more time at Comdex than most other executives.
Gates: I like to try to see all the keynotes and get out at least four or five hours out on the show floor. It's a great chance to meet with partners of various types.
What was the first year you came to Comdex?
It was the second Comdex, which was about 16 years ago.
How have you seen the show change?
It's a dramatically bigger show. It's a reflection of our industry. Remember, this was the computer dealers exhibition. It really was computer dealers originally. Now, of course, it's become interested users and every element of the industry coming together.
What do you think of all the spectacle that's grown up around the show?
The competition to get people's attention has always been pretty amazing. We paid to get the bags and the signs and we put a balloon up one year and the Comdex guys decided they wanted to charge us for that. One year, we figured out how to get pillow cases into everybody's rooms with a certain message on them. You have to get a little bit creative because you've got thousands of companies here, and if you've got a neat and exciting product, it might get lost in the noise.