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Bill Gates Charts 'The Road Ahead'

December 05, 1996|Bob Sipchen and John Lindsay

To the well wired, it must sometimes seem that Microsoft cofounder and CEO Bill Gates is trying to set up branch offices in people's brains.

Since the Dark Ages of the mid-'70s, when he and a young partner first capitalized on their vision of a high-tech future, Microsoft's products, including 100 million copies of its Windows programs, have spread to personal computers worldwide.

Last year, the company generated close to $9 billion in revenues, and Gates' personal stock holdings climbed to an estimated $20 billion.

Now 41, William H. Gates is revered and reviled as the most familiar icon of the razzle-dazzle Information Age--the Revenging Nerd incarnate. Last week, he roared through Los Angeles to promote the updated, paperback edition of his 1995 book "The Road Ahead" (Penguin). Containing a CD-ROM that features video interviews with Gates and links to Internet sites, the package offers a glimpse of the Info Age wonders Gates aggressively touts.

Times staff writer Bob Sipchen and Assistant Associate Editor John Lindsay talked with Gates for half an hour before he started a day of philanthropy and publicity. As he talked, Gates sipped Perrier and rocked back and forth. His freckled, boyish face was animated, his nasal voice expressive, his frequent chuckling like a personal sublanguage that subtly conveyed amusement, enthusiasm and disdain--though it was sometimes uncomfortably difficult to determine which was which.

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Times: Is it healthy that Americans now seem to include businessmen and technologists in their celebrity worship?

BG: Maybe they should include no one in their celebrity worship. You're not going to get me to endorse celebrity worship.

Times: Do you enjoy your celebrity?

BG: No. . . . I mean, there's one thing I do enjoy, which is going out and talking about personal computers and how they can be used, and talking about Microsoft and the products we're doing.

Times: How curious are you about yourself; [about] what makes you tick?

BG: It's a bit of an unusual question. I was not a psychology major, if that's the question.

Times: No, but you [have] said that you contemplated psychology as an academic pursuit.

BG: It's true, I actually took a few courses. I have to admit that. I know how to spell "id."

Times: It sounds like you analyze your competitors more than yourself.

BG: In terms of business issues, I am very analytical. I analyze Microsoft as a business and its strengths and weaknesses. I try to make sure I'm aware of what the other companies are up to: How did they organize their software development? How did they do their hiring? . . . So I'm serious about business. . . .

The thing that's fun about [Microsoft] is working with smart people, learning new things, taking on the challenges.

Times: So, you love the process? You're not saying, "Well, there will never be enough; I will always be unsatisfied"?

BG: No, I'm perfectly satisfied. If somebody came along tomorrow and said, "We've decided you don't get to do this anymore," I'd say, "Jeez, that's very disappointing, but I've been so lucky to have the opportunity these 20 years." I think my job is the best in the world.

There's a lot of reasons for that. It's fun. I go off and do these think weeks, two weeks a year, just by myself, reading up on the latest new technology, and at the end I write a few memos. That's my way of making sure I'm staying up to date in what is a very fast-paced business. A lot of people give me things they want me to read--whether it's about satellites or vision or artificial intelligence. And those weeks are particularly fun.

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Cut in stone across the Los Angeles Central Library's facade are the words: "Books alone are liberal and free: They give to all who ask / They emancipate all who serve them faithfully." Gates, who last week donated $1.1 million, largely from "Road Ahead" profits, to the library and Los Angeles public schools for computers and training, embraces a similar sentiment about the technology of the Information Age.

Times: You say, in essence, in the book that putting kids online will help level the educational playing field. Can't it be argued that that's like saying, "Let them eat knowledge?" It seems there are systemic inequities that are going to overwhelm the technological advantages, and the gap between the "haves" and "have nots" is going to widen.

BG: When books first came out, not everybody was literate, so books at first did create a gap between the literate and the illiterate. Were books a bad thing? Should we have blocked their use? Probably not.

But over a long period of time, the notion of universal literacy and access to libraries, funded by local government and philanthropy, got pretty well established. Today kids, if they're willing to go down to the library, can get plenty of books.

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