The two faces of Bill Gates

Snapshot A: An energetic visionary who's unafraid to challenge the industry with bold techno-paradigms. Several adjectives come to mind: Engaged, aggressive, brilliant.

Snapshot A: An energetic visionary who's unafraid to challenge the industry with bold techno-paradigms. Several adjectives come to mind: Engaged, aggressive, brilliant.

Snapshot B: A shlumpfy weasel who can't put two truths back-to-back. Several other adjectives also come to mind: Evasive, disconnected, passive.

Meet the two faces of Bill Gates in what must rate as the biggest split-personality disorder since Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde.

Ever since the Microsoft antitrust trial began last October, government prosecutors have skillfully woven memos and video clips from Gates' testimony to portray the software mogul in a way that sharply contrasts with the carefully cultivated public image that's grown up around him over the past decade.

You'll get an argument about that from Microsoft, which says its CEO is getting a raw deal from Uncle Sam.

They say the government's strategy is transparent: Hang Gates with his own words with excerpts --it prefers to call 'snippets' -- that are irrelevant to the antitrust case and only designed to embarrass the boss.

To be honest, lead government litigator David Boies hasn't needed to sweat to make his points. Gates has come across as the kind of strict interpretationist that only a Philadelphia lawyer could love ("What do you mean by concern" is so far my favorite Gatesism from the trial.) I can understand the curt responses -- indeed why should he make Boies' life easy? -- but Gates' answers are so labored that they stretch the boundaries of credulity.

For example, here's one scene from the popcorn show at court on Tuesday.

Q: Mr. Gates, you've been sued by Sun Microsystems over Java, have you not?

A: There's a lawsuit with Sun.

Q: Did you ever try to find that out?

A: What?

Q: What the claims were more than your present knowledge.

A: I read something that was on our web site about four days ago.

Q: About the Sun lawsuit?

A: Yeah, Bob Muglia had some statements.

Q: Other than that, did you ever try to find out what Microsoft is being charged with, what they're alleged to have done wrong?

A: I've had discussions with [Paul] Maritz saying: Do I need to learn about this lawsuit? Do I need to spend a lot of time on it?

Q: What did he say?

A: He said, no, he's focused on that and I can focus on other things.

Q: Is one of the things that you're focused on trying, in Mr. Slivka's words, to wrest control or get control, if wrest is a word that you don't like, of Java away from Sun?

A: No.

So we're led to believe from this exchange that the chairman and chief executive knows next to nothing about a lawsuit affecting arguably the most crucial software technological challenge to Windows in the last decade. If this were the case -- and this is just one example where Gates comes across as similarly ill-informed about issues of tactics and strategy -- then shareholders would rightly conclude that the man at the helm is not fit for the job.

Yet that simply wouldn't square with Gates's impressive resume. Dunderheads don't build multi-billion dollar enterprises and Gates rates as one of the most remarkable success stories in history precisely because he is remarkably engaged and paranoid enough to believe it can all go "poof!" if he relaxes on cruise control.

Now meet the other Gates.

On Wednesday, Gates delivered a speech to the Manhattan Institute that was crisp, provocative and forward-looking. No doubt a speechwriter sat in front of a word processor but the ideas are vintage Gates. He offered a vintage performance, doing the vision thing as he sketched out the post-PC future where we'll all live happily ever after in a linked digital world.

Whether his scenario makes good sense or not is another issue. But the speech was proof-positive that Gates is hardly out to lunch and still very much in command.

And so everyone is asking who is the imposter Gates being beamed into Judge Jackson's courtroom?

Microsoft insiders, who are increasingly frustrated with the government's snippet strategy, say it's one and the same man. They say Gates walked into the deposition with Boies determined not to allow the government to mischaracterize Microsoft -- or to hand his interrogator any gift-wrapped presents.

"He was listening intently to the questions and giving a very careful interpretation. If he was asked to speculate, he wouldn't speculate," said a source familiar with Gates' thinking. The source added that Gates, who is not known for rewarding people for asking uninformed questions, answered Boise's questions as narrowly as required -- but no more.

"I don't expect you'd see anyone at their most ebullient at the other end of a government deposition," the source continued. "I don't think he was being unhelpful but I don't think it's his job to be helpful."

Of course none of this much helps Microsoft's chief spokesflak at the trial, Mark Murray, who is in danger of morphing into Ron Ziegler. Each day Murray, a master of the post-game Microsoft spin, puts on the best public face possible and explains why the testimony du jour helped Microsoft's case.

It's one helluva challenge when your boss comes across looking like Tricky Dick. In the end, it's also a losing strategy.


You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
See All
See All