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Tech Industry

Will the real Bill Gates please stand up?


CNET Newsmakers
December 6, 1996, Bill Gates
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.

NEXT: The price of fame

Bill Gates

Age: 41

Claim to fame: Leader of the computing industry and ex-boyfriend of Ann Winblad

Net worth: Over $20 billion (yes, that's with a "b")

Preferred foods: Cherry Coke and spray cheese

Annoying traits: Compulsive rocking, glasses that won't stay perched on bridge of his nose

CNET Newsmakers
December 6, 1996, Bill Gates
The price of fame

Do you walk around on the show floor?
Yeah. I spend at least a day every year out there going around, both going to the companies that I already know and seeing what small companies are doing. This year there's a pavilion, which they call an Internet pavilion, although everything is Internet-related this year. What's the distinction? But there are interesting things to see there. And then every year, you see what's the latest in storage and flat-panel display technologies, etc.

Do people recognize you?
More and more. I have to be sure not to pause because I'm going to get a lot of people coming up to me. Although that's nice, my goal is to go out and see a number of product demos. So I move at a pretty good clip. Last year [NBC news anchor Tom] Brokaw and I did a piece, and because they had the cameras following us, that's a real crowd attractor.

You wrote a book about technology and you write a regular syndicated column. Why is it people are so interested in what Bill Gates has to say about technology and the future?
I think they're interested in the future and how they should be planning for their careers or some entrepreneurial thing they want to do. It's an unbelievable subject in terms of the magazines that people buy and these shows. The depth of interest always surprises me. I wrote the book, which is called The Road Ahead because there are some things as a technologist that I think have broad societal implications. And you don't just want technologists to be thinking, "Wow, schools could be doing certain things, or privacy rules may have to get more sophisticated in certain ways, or maybe libraries should become a place where anybody can come and have access to these PCs connected to the Internet." Sharing those thoughts makes sure that the debate about how we shape these opportunities starts a little bit earlier than it might have otherwise.

Why do you think they are so interested in what you in particular have to say, rather than, say, someone like Jim Barksdale?
I think that there's a great interest in any of the leaders in this industry. Microsoft has a range of products; we've been around and done more than anybody else has in the software arena. And so we have a lot of users. If you take all of the [Microsoft] Office-related products, that's over 50 million people there. If you take all the operating system products, that's over 200 million people there. We're putting more into research and development than any other company because we're optimistic about speech and vision and learning, and that optimism--which we showed with our commitment to graphical interfaces, with our commitment to CD-ROM, Windows NT--again, we're making some risky bets and people enjoy knowing where we are going.

People are interested in my role as the leader of Microsoft. We're not just talking a vision. We're saying where we're going to go next year and we have so much customer feedback...We get millions of calls every year. We spend a lot of time logging those calls and I spend a lot of time listening in on those calls and then seeing statistically what the issues are. Really shaping our product developments based on that feedback makes sure we're not getting off track. What is it that's confusing? What is it that's not powerful enough?

So if you combine the use of that feedback--which is just getting richer and richer all the time because now we have people on the Internet--and right in the middle of when you are using the product, you can see, "the feature I'm using now, I want it to be different." More and more feedback together with the research guides us in what I think in the right direction.

NEXT: No conflicts here

CNET Newsmakers
December 6, 1996, Bill Gates
No conflicts here

How do you reconcile running what is pretty well the software company with producing content and being involved in communications ventures, like MSNBC?
Microsoft is a big believer in the Internet and we think that interactive content on the Internet is a new business. The audience isn't big enough yet; the rules aren't established enough yet to know exactly where it's going to go. We're entrepreneurial enough to see that we think that we can take some of our software expertise, some of the smart people that we have, our long-term approach, our willingness to invest, and our willingness to hire people with new skills--people like [former editor of The New Republic and current editor of a Microsoft's Slate] Michael Kinsley--and do something new in the interactive content area. We've always been doing computer games that are very content-driven. Even the Office product itself: the help, the thesaurus, the style guides, the templates...All of those things are content-driven.

We've had great successes, like in our encyclopedia Encarta, where we are the largest encyclopedia company in the world. That's a good money-making business, and so we've expanded that to five more languages and become the first global encyclopedia. Some of the things we are doing in interactive content won't succeed. Some of them will do very well.

It helps us to be a lot smarter about the building blocks: the authoring tools, the site management tools, the ad-handling tools. We use that in order to build platform products that we make available to everyone so that they too can come in and do interactive content.

So you don't see any conflicts?
Whenever you are in more than one business you can have more opportunities for people to do things. When we did MS-DOS we also did languages and applications, so we've never allowed ourselves to be defined as just a single product company: the MS-DOS company, the Windows company, the flight simulator company, or the mouse company. And our track record is that we spend hundreds of millions of dollars to promote our platforms...That's why the great success stories of the software industry have been people who've built around our platforms.

There are many categories of software, some of which we are in and many that we're not suited to be in. Any technology company I can think of has more than one product and many that fit together. That's been a major source of our success.

So there is no conflict.
I don't know what you mean by conflict. We have many software developers who build on Windows.

I mean between your media companies [such as MSNBC] and software, providing the water and the pipe.
We do not provide the pipe. We are not in the communications business in any way. We work with cable and phone companies. We promote ISDN, ADSL, PC cable modems, you name it, and [those aren't] businesses that we understand or that you'll see us be part of.