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opinion.gif (236 bytes)Opinion - Pearly Gates -
(January 2000)
Bill Gates’ recent visit to the UK has sparked off a few thoughts for Mark Vernon.

Bill Gates, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton died and went to heaven. God called Blair forward and said, "Come and sit on my left." God called Clinton forward and said, "Come and sit on my right." God called Gates forward, and Gates said, "You’re sitting in my seat."

Money, money, money

This is the favourite Bill Gates joke of Jeremy Paxman, the combative presenter of Newsnight and University Challenge. It might be a bit old for hacks and geeks, but Paxman at least had the audacity to tell it to Gates’ face when he interviewed him at the end of last year. It promised to be an exciting TV programme: the second most powerful man in Britain, according to The Times, unmasked by the best of British interviewing. It turned out to be interesting, but in an odd way not dissimilar to examining a Victorian curiosity.

Part of the reason for that is Gates’ remarkable attitude to his wealth. The vastness of it seems to fascinate everyone, but himself. When Paxman asked whether it was true that if he dropped a $100 bill it was not worth his time to pick it up, Gates showed as much plain-faced bemusement as when Paxman told him his favourite joke. Gates is in business not to make money, but, in an association that only American’s can make, "to have fun and change the world". The fact that he is the richest man on the planet appears to him to be nothing more than a by-product of ‘building great software’. It gets him invited to tea with world leaders with whom it is ‘cool’ to talk. But he regards himself as merely a custodian of monies, to spend on Microsoft and, in increasingly large measures, to give away – to allow people better access to education and health. Paxman is not the only one who finds this attitude remarkable, and wholly to Gates’ credit.

Dreams can come true

Gates is famous for the original Microsoft vision statement to put a computer on every desk and in every home. Back in 1975 this was breathtaking. Now it is merely a question of time. The vision statement has therefore changed emphasis to build in the notion of empowering people, any time, any place, on any device. It is this that now excites people in Redmond, since it highlights the role of software in the networked age, nothing less than the vitalising energy in a web of pulsating connectivity across the globe. But Gates believes this web is too visible. People have to think too much about moving information around, linking devices to the network and how to find what they are looking for (and long may it continue, chants the IT professional!). Like the air that we breathe, the web must disappear.

That is why Microsoft’s R&D budget stretches to $3.8 billion, although to take the next steps even this amount will not be enough. Companies like Microsoft are going to have to form partnerships with telecommunications companies in particular. Hence, the string of alliances and deals Microsoft has announced. Gates believes that Microsoft is uniquely positioned to bring all these different parties together, on a software platform that can integrate TV, PC, mobile and whatever else needs to get hooked up.

Perhaps Gates’ harshest words on this trip to the UK were for network operators. They are underestimating the power of the future, he believes, particularly in terms of broadband applications. The key is to think more expansively about voice, video and the Internet all coming together. It is designing services that exploit these possibilities to the full that Gates encourages his people to pursue most aggressively. He noted that it is often capital markets that adopt a better attitude than the IT industry per se. Not that the West coast of America leads the way in every respect. The GSM standard and the presence of Nokia and Ericsson raises the profile of Europe on Gates’ IT futures radar.

Gates becomes most animated when he is talking about computers and the next technological horizon, not so surprising since he is the head of the most successful software company in history. But, as Paxman’s interview showed, this is perhaps the reason why he is interesting but as a kind of freak. So random does his rise to the top seem that there is an apparent inevitability about the power he wields. When he talks of it, it is as if Microsoft was a force of nature not the calculated choices of a bunch of commercially-minded men. We must hope that he stays on the good side and is not wooed, even unwittingly, to the dark side of that force.

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