By Joel Shore
Fifteen years ago, two Seattle-area teenagers, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, had a vision so outlandish it seemed to border on the ludicrous. In an age when the mainframe still reigned supreme and the minicomputer was the new kid on the block, the pair yearned to “put a computer on every desktop and in every home.”
With Gates at the helm as chairman and chief executive following Allen’s early departure, that vision, today known as Microsoft Corp., does more than $1 billion a year, writes the operating systems that make most of the world compute and is becoming a leading force in networking, handwriting recognition and multimedia. While that original vision remains only partially fulfilled, Gates, more so than any other individual, has transformed serendipity into probability.
Currently riding a wave of sales of more than 1 million copies of Windows 3.0, about to ship a major new release of MS-DOS and posing a threat to archrival Novell Inc.’s continued dominance in the networking arena, Bill Gates is without question the most influential executive in the personal-computer market.
Gates’ phenomenal success is its own paradox: “If we’d really thought about our vision back in ‘75, we’d have said, ‘Wow, that’s going to be a big company.’ But we were very, very conservative every step of the way . . . thinking of how . . . to deal with being at this size and keep things excellent, and always thinking, `Boy, we must be about ready to plateau out, we’d better be very conservative about how we do things.’ It’s been really a step at a time.”
What impresses Gates and causes him to pause and reflect? “It is difficult to grasp the impact we’ve had. Tens of millions of people use microcomputers every day, and thousands of companies develop products for the microcomputer industry. I’d have to look on that as a major contribution.”
Though the names of Microsoft and its chairman are synonymous, and Bill Gates, company executive, is continually in the public eye, citizen Gates prefers to keep his personal life private.
It is an understatement to say that daily business at Microsoft dominates Gates’ life. “I take vacations like normal people do, but I’m pretty intense about what I’m doing at Microsoft, and often that is what’s most important to me,” he said during an interview in a hotel suite—not an unusual place to find him.
The 33-year-old executive’s intense itinerary does, however, provide for long weekends in scattered regions of the country. (According to his public-relations firm, Gates’ calendar puts him in Redmond for only eight business days from mid-September through Comdex in November.) But mostly, he relies on “pretty normal stuff” to divide the work hours, such as a tennis match, a sail on Lake Washington or a tranquil moment to read about his other passion, biotechnology.
Quiz him about material possessions such as cars or houses, and the normally animated Gates becomes taciturn, strange for someone who embodies the concept of perpetual motion. But ask about business and he rises to the occasion.
“Our original vision of a personal computer on every desk and in every home, it’s happening,” Gates said, wringing his hands enthusiastically. “Whether it’s the original personal computer with our BASIC built in, or the creation of the IBM PC, or developing for the Macintosh or Windows or portable machines, Microsoft has played a fairly central role in a lot of things that have gone on.
“I’ve always believed that software is the key ingredient: the key ingredient for innovation, the key ingredient for standards, and that’s where we at Microsoft have decided to focus,” he added. “Maybe this year people are recognizing the importance of software relative to hardware more than they have in the past. It’s not a new idea for me,” he added, seemingly acknowledging his clairvoyance.
As far as spending his billions, Gates has not let his wealth go to his head, said Mike Maples, Microsoft’s applications vice president. “He still drives himself, and he still flies tourist class.”
For the record, Gates drives a new Lexus and owns a classic Ford Mustang—but there is the matter of the Porsche 959, Gates’ $600,000 bauble that remains impounded by the U.S. Customs Service in San Francisco. Seems the car’s environmental systems are not approved for use in the United States.
And following his interest in biotechnology, Gates recently invested in a biotech start-up, according to Scott Oki, Microsoft’s vice president of U.S. marketing and distribution.
But then there is the new house. Gates bristles at reports that this 35,000-square-foot high-tech showplace is built underground and that, as the joke around Microsoft goes, he spent millions on Windows the software but not a dime on windows for his house.
“I don’t know how these rumors get started,” he complained. “The only part of the house that is underground is the parking garage, everything else is above ground and has Windows.” No ordinary garage though, it will hold probably a couple dozen cars.
Family ties remain strong as well. Gates still joins his family in recreational activities and sailing each summer on Lake Washington.
As to sharing his home with a family of his own, Gates, perhaps America’s most eligible bachelor, answers far less decisively than he does on business issues. “Marriage is not one of those things you predict. It’s not like a new version of software or something. It’s not valuable to speculate, but it’s not out of the question. We have a fairly clear goal to keep my time focused on products, sharing ideas and reading and writing about products,” Gates said. “I try pretty closely to make sure that 60 percent of my time is spent on product issues,” he added, pointing to his tendency to combine speaking engagements with chats on product issues.
Those product issues, if nothing else, have given Gates the perseverance and perspective to plan for the long haul. “Gates is one of the few people who has vision,” said Marshall Moseley, an analyst with Dataquest Inc., in San Jose, Calif. “He doesn’t think of business on a quarter-by-quarter basis.”
Moseley supported his observation by noting that the original Windows product, announced in 1983 but not a reality until 1985, met with widespread criticism when it was released. Still, Gates, who had crusaded for much of the past decade for incorporating a graphical user interface with DOS, stuck to his guns, revamped the product and then watched Windows 3.0 become successful beyond even his most optimistic projections.
Microsoft is not likely to rest on its laurels, either. Over the next year, the company must concentrate on broadening the scope of Windows sales and individual applications and fine-tuning the direction of its networking programs in order to position the personal computer as an invaluable information tool.
“An element of that is the work we’re doing in networking, the so-called client/server thing where you can get at information in different ways, where you can get the best of shared data and also get the best of personal computing,” Gates said.
Gates admitted it will take time for users to adjust, and he stresses the role VARs play in proliferating networking software. There are still numerous issues to contend with, he added, such as making network administration and software techniques easier and finding ways to locate data on a large network.
“We have a long ways to go to deliver what people want,” he said. “Our getting so serious about the networking business is probably this recognition that peoples’ needs weren’t being met by the products. So our opportunity on gaining market share could be based on our being very innovative with the product.”
Despite slow market acceptance of OS/2 in the Windows wake, Gates said Microsoft’s development of Presentation Manager software packages is making strides. (Word for the Presentation Manager was scheduled to ship by now.) In addition, the Microsoft Windows software migration kit will enable Microsoft and third-party applications developers to move popular Windows applications onto OS/2 smoothly, he predicted.
Gates’ rivals in the software industry respect him as a tough adversary.
Said Heidi Roizen, president and chief executive of Macintosh applications maker T/Maker Co., recalling numerous wagers over trivia with the Microsoft chief, “I think he’s a brilliant guy, the ultimate competitor.” But she expresses little envy over Gates’ agenda: “I’m not sure it’s the life I want to lead.”
Philippe Kahn, chairman of Borland International Inc., said, “Bill is really a very formidable competitor. He’s a smart guy, he understands technology, and it’s kind of fun to compete.”
But brilliance and formidability require a hard-shelled exterior and, here too, Gates delivers.
“I’d describe him as demanding,” said Microsoft’s Maples. “He expects energy and commitment from his employees. He insists on a thoughtful, thorough, complete analysis, and he is so incredibly intelligent that you know you cannot be anything but complete, thorough or accurate.”
Oki conceded that Gates can play the heavy, if necessary. “People who don’t know him might call him an S.O.B., but I’d say he’s very hard-core and demanding about making business decisions.”
Gates himself is not without words of praise for other industry executives. “There are so many smart people that I’ve learned from and enjoyed working with,” he said. “There are guys like Ken Olsen, who stuck with things and has been hard-core about what he believes. There are people like Steve Jobs, who knows how to build excitement, get people thinking about where things might go.”
And of his dealings with IBM’s James Cannavino, a relationship frequently reported to be crumbling, Gates said, “There is no one in this industry who I work more closely with than Jim.”
With so many accomplishments and wealth so great that even Gates admitted he could not spend it all, what’s ahead?
“Information at your fingertips, the ability to find information no matter where it is and what format it is in, that is our crusade for the ‘90s.”
That vision may sound so outlandish it borders on the ludicrous . . .
© 1990 CMP Media Inc.