Up close to the pearly Gates

By Chris Barton

By CHRIS BARTON

Bill Gates rocks - literally. Back and forth, back and forth through much of the 30-minute interview.

Hard to reconcile with one who wields so much power as chairman and "chief software architect" of the phenomenon that is Microsoft. He has held the title of "world's richest man."

I'm thinking damaged genius. Maybe it reassures the nervous child within and helps the right words come out - especially good for a brain swirling with algorithms.

The rocking arrives with the third question - about the United States District Court's ruling to dismember the Microsoft empire because it abused its monopoly power and stifled high-tech innovation.

If the court has its way there will be two Microsofts - one to handle the ubiquitous Windows operating system and the other for Microsoft applications such as Word, Office and the MSN Website.

Clearly unimpressed with the ruling, Mr Gates is certain it will be overturned on appeal.

"It's probably best to talk about the case when it's over. Then you can say who was right.

"It's almost irrelevant what happens at the District level. It's novel what happened at the District level, but the real decisions end up being made by the higher court. That's where complex anti-trust cases have always been decided."

He points to high-tech cases that have trodden a similar path, including a 1994 consent decree ruling about Microsoft where the judge got it "completely wrong in terms of the facts, the law and the procedure."

That case, he says, spoke 100 per cent to the central issue now: "Does the law encourage innovation?"

In Mr Gates' mind it is innovative to put Internet code in Windows; to knit its Web browser closely with the operating system.

Judge Penfield Jackson said no, viewing the tactic as Microsoft unfairly using its dominance in Windows to gain control of the Web browsing and Internet market.

The judge also said Microsoft's anti-competitive behaviour was not only stifling innovation, it was hurting consumers. In essence, Microsoft's total control of the PC market had slowed its development.

Mr Gates says the ruling will hurt consumers. Could he please explain how? Intense rocking.

"Well, understand that we add features to Windows all the time and Windows is made up of literally thousands of features. It's not even clear if we're allowed to add features.

"Would we have to ship it as 10,000 different products - 50,000 different products? The fact is when you buy Windows you get support for hard disk, you get support for modem, support for TCP/IP, for compression, images, cameras and for printers.

"Why is the PC industry so successful? It's because every year we've added in new capabilities to Windows. Their [the District Court and Department of Justice] basic principle is: no new features should be integrated in.

"The thing the court missed is there's no exclusion of any kind. Anyone can run a browser on top of Windows.

"The basic fact - even before a case like this should go for one day - is: did the Netscape browser somehow stop running? There's nothing that's held back in any way, shape or form.

"Believe me, it's not worth spending a lot of time on this. When the Appeal's Court rules then you'll understand exactly what happened here."

The audience with Bill includes four other journalists - from China, Mexico, the Netherlands and Britain.

My New Zealand host is very excited. Her persistence has pushed a Kiwi through the selection process. The Australians have to settle for the manic exuberance of chief executive Steve Balmer.

That morning about 400 journalists and IT analysts have heard Bill, Steve and a host of other Microsoft vice-presidents deliver a new vision, Microsoft.Net, a grand plan that will see all the company's products combine with the Web in ways not possible today.

The software will become Net interactive, delivering services from Websites to wherever one wants.

A preoccupation of the lengthy presentation is the need to synchronise information, particularly e-mail and diaries, across multiple devices - the PC, handheld computer, cellphone and TV.

One of the most difficult technical problems of the new era is turning off the information flow so that when peace and quiet are required, the communication device does not ring. But it must be smart enough to interrupt when it detects urgent communication.

In his new role of chief software architect, Mr Gates is doing what he likes best - spending much more time with his engineers developing software.

He says his personal life is not that different from anyone else.

"With a 4-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son, I like to spend time with them and watch them learn things and just make sure I take the time to do those things."

But his children will not inherit all of his huge fortune. That has been set aside for good works through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

How much? It depends on the stock price. Last year, Mr Gates had a brief stint as the world's first $US100 billion ($213 billion) man.

Since then Microsoft's stock price has fallen about 45 per cent, in part because of uncertainty arising from the anti-trust case.

Bill is now worth about $US60 billion. The heirs will get a small slice.

"Small percentages can still be a substantial amount. My kids will be able to order the large fries whenever they want."

He is more concerned that his children grow up in a normal environment and not have people look at them in terms of who they are related to.

"It's a challenge being a parent in any situation. There's a few extra challenges for Melinda and I being great parents, but we're very enthusiastic about that."

Philanthropy is a big part of the Gates way of life. The foundation has donated about $US20 billion to worthy causes and last year Microsoft gave $25.5 million in cash and $79 million in software.

Employees also gave $12.6 million in cash, which the company matches dollar-for-dollar on contributions of $25 or more.

The current causes? "I've got fascinated with some of the issues of world health - why the diseases that are so widespread in the developing countries haven't received the research focus they deserve. I hope my foundation can make a substantial difference there."

Mr Gates is also working to bridge the widening "digital divide" between those whose can afford PCs and the Internet and those who can't.

Candy, soda and pizza fuel the Microsofties

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