Bill Gates Charts 'The Road Ahead'

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.

The same thing is happening now with computers. They showed up first in private schools and high demographic areas. And if you believe they're as valuable a tool as I do, then you feel bad that they couldn't have shown up everywhere simultaneously.

Times: You use the term "smart" often. It seems clear that intelligence is becoming increasingly critical in the Information Age. Where do you come down on the nurture / nature equation?

BG: Say we knew the total answer to that question; it really wouldn't effect any business decision that I've ever made. But my basic view is that people have incredible innate potential, that everybody does, and that when you're young, if you're lucky enough to have somebody who answers your questions, or encourages you to read, and gets you addicted to reading, that then you get to develop more of that potential than people who aren't in that position.

So when I see a kid sitting at the computer and interacting, learning "If I go here, this thing happens," I see that as a process that is helping them to learn, to gain some confidence. . . . It does help them to explore and retain that incredible curiosity that everyone starts with.

Times: There's talk that we're on the verge of a "post-literate" age, where reading is losing its importance.

BG: I'd say, actually, the opposite. When you get a company where electronic mail is a fundamental means of communication, you really have to express yourself fairly well. . . .

Times: Is the [spread] of the PC [growing at equal rates] between the home and the school?

BG: Actually, homes are quite a bit ahead of schools today [in the U.S.]. In most countries it's the other way around. Take Israel, where they've done very, very well in getting computers into the school.

Here you've got a lot of kids who've got computers at home, that, at least in a meaningful sense, computers aren't part of their school day. There might be a few off in the lab, but you only get a small period of time a day [to use them].

There are some really interesting cases where a few schools have given a laptop computer to every student. Now that's very expensive, so it's not easy to do everywhere. But where they've done that, the student gets a sense of, "Hey, this is mine. I'm going to take care of it." And every class they go to, they have it there to take their notes [on], and they take it home at night. . . . They can connect up at night and play around. It's a very different experience."

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At the Central Library dedication, entertainer Sinbad introduced Mayor Richard Riordan, who introduced Gates. Then Gates used the library's big-screen video to introduce to a multicultural assembly of students the animated computer game Neverhood. The game was created by DreamWorks SKG, a company in which Microsoft is an investor and which Riordan has pushed hard to help locate in Los Angeles--an increasingly common and complex public-private symbiosis.

Times: Some people seem to worry that there might be a "Gates' Law," something akin to Moore's Law (the thesis--thus far accurate--that the capacity of a computer chip will double every 18 months or so). . . . The fear is not just of you, but of this increasing wealth and power that is falling into the hands of "techno tycoons."

BG: First, in terms of wealth, I've been very clear that my wealth came from society and it's going back to society. I don't believe in passing a significant percentage of it on to [one's own] children, so the wealth is going to get used [for] good causes. There's not a constant accumulation.

In terms of power, Microsoft and these other companies are building tools. It's a lot like electricity or printing presses. [But] for the first time we've got a medium that's not controlled by a few people [as are] newspapers or [the] TV spectrum, where less than 1% of the people in the country control all the newspapers and all the TV stations.

Here, you can publish your ideas with some very inexpensive tools. So this is the most democratic medium that's ever existed.

Times: How do you describe your politics?

BG: I'm fairly silent on quite a bit of my political views because I'm so closely associated with the company. There [are] a few things, like allowing legal immigration--not cutting that down--[allowing] free trade, allowing encryption [coding to keep digitized information private] to be used more broadly, where the company takes a position, works with Republicans and Democrats to explain the issues. [But] unlike a lot of people, I'm not using Microsoft and its position to further my own views.

Times: The sequence: Perot, Forbes . . . Gates, doesn't appeal to you?

BG: No. As I say, I like what I'm doing currently.

Actually, I had a fascination with politics when I was growing up. I was a page in the United States Congress, and my dad ran a lot of political campaigns. But I'm sure being a politician wouldn't be as interesting as what I'm doing now. The kind of impact I can have by improving technology, hiring smart people, may be greater than at least your average politician.

Times: You've said that as you get older you plan to give away 90% of your money. [But] there's so much suffering in the world right now--starvation even. It could be argued that if you intervened now, you could change some lives; save some lives. . . . How do you wrestle with that issue? Is it an issue for you?

BG: Well, one of the causes I have given money to is population control. It's a personal thing. It has nothing to do with the company. . . . It's just free availability of information and birth control. I mean, it's a pretty clear benefit.

Giving money away is a different thing than running a company, and my focus is running Microsoft. . . . It's not like there's a vault somewhere. I own part of Microsoft. And unless I keep Microsoft successful, the whole issue we're discussing here is completely moot--there's nothing, no resources to give. . . .

Times: You seem almost amused by the myth that's sprung up around you. Is it hard to keep from becoming eccentric and weird the way so many American [legends] become?

BG: I think the patterns of how one works and your values are established pretty early in life. I have a wife and great friends who are the group I spend time with.

It's a strange question, really. I mean, if you've noticed any eccentricities, please let me know.

Times: No. . . . You seem incredibly normal, but when people reach this level of mythology in American culture, there's a tendency to go off like Howard Hughes. . . .

BG: Well, Howard Hughes, you're right, that's a pretty extreme situation. . . . There's more there than eccentricity.

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