My 15 minutes with Bill Gates, and how the Web was born

Once upon a time, when Bill Gates still flew commercial and I was a budding journalist in need of a haircut, I had a number of opportunities to interview and otherwise interact with Bill Gates. It was often contentious, always intriguing, and more often than not frustrating as well.
Written by Joshua Greenbaum, Contributor

Once upon a time, when Bill Gates still flew commercial and I was a budding journalist in need of a haircut, I had a number of opportunities to interview and otherwise interact with Bill Gates. It was often contentious, always intriguing, and more often than not frustrating as well. Part of the problem was that my job in the mid-80's was to cover this thing called Unix and a related group of fellow travelers traveling under the rubric of the open software movement, and to say Gates and Microsoft were opposed to the whole idea would be like saying Steve Ballmer isn't a mellow guy. Gates was rabidly anti-Unix, for reasons that are too complex to enumerate here, and as a result I was persona non amata, if not non grata, in Gates' presence. Oh well.

As a result we sparred on a number of issues, and, to Gates' credit he usually managed to curb his wrath enough to hear most of my questions, before ripping, or trying to rip me to shreds. But one incident remains stuck in my mind for both the audacity of my question, the cluelessness of Gate's answer, and the resulting market forces that made Gates as right as, well Bill Gates has proven to be more often than not.

The actual date and time of the incident are lost in the fog of my memory, but the topic of the press conference is still firing on a few of my synapses: Microsoft's introduction of their multimedia PC concept. According to Wikipedia, the arrival of the multimedia PC spec was sometime in 1990, Answers.com pegs it as 1992, but I'm pretty sure Bill was flogging the idea several years earlier, circa 1988 or so.

Regardless, we're talking the stone age of PC computing, in terms of what you could and couldn't do on a basic PC. Think 64K RAM, 10 meg hard drives, color monitors as rare as a June bug in December. The spreadsheet and word processor were the killer apps, Windows hadn't even made it to its (gag) 3.0 version, and while I by then had been using PCs for a millenium or two (I had built a Heathkit 8086 machine in 1984), I was skeptical about how far Microsoft and the PC standard would be able to go, a skepticism fueled by that journalist's paycheck that arrived in my hand every month.

So there I was, in the audience, as Bill Gates was trying to warm up the market with the newest cool thing, which he was calling the multimedia PC, and I wasn't buying. Prior to becoming a journalist I had had a real job as a computer graphics programmer, working with some very (at the time) high end graphics systems that cost, believe it or not, upwards of $250,000. We had specialized graphics engines, specialized monitors, fancy plotters, and the like, and it cost a bundle and was hard as hell to work with, hence the need for a "semi"-skilled programmer such as myself to actually make any multi-media things happen.

And there was Gates pretending that we were all going to do all this on a PC, and that it was going to be really cool and fun and useful. Yeh, right. Then he went through the hardware and software spec that would be the foundation of this new computing platform, followed by a demo of what we could look forward to once this new era had been ushered in. As I recall the demo was a children's game the likes of which you wouldn't let your child near today. Not only were the graphics bad and the user experience lousy, but it was really hard to look at this and see where Gates and company could possibly take this lame little spec. Multimedia PC? For playing bad children's game. Puh-leeeeeease.

So I raised my hand and said something fresh like, "Bill, what is the killer app that's going to make this multimedia PC a must-have on every desktop?" I'm sure I said with a smirk, or some disdain, or a combination of the two. After all, my journalist colleagues were in the room and this kind of attitude was expected of all us.

Bill's answer was impressively unimpressive, and it was apparent that there was no killer app that he could cite that was going to take this funny concept and make something of it. Indeed, as I recall, he fumbled around and finally said that the spec was needed to open up the unknown possibilities of multimedia, or something like that. I left with my smirk well-justified, or so I thought.

The rest, as they say, is history, and it belonged as much to Bill's vision of a multimedia PC as anything else. As early thinking around the Web emerged from a bunch of Unix heads at CERN, it became pretty obvious to me that I had now had the answer to my question, and that, regardless of Bill's hesitation, his vision, while clearly unable to be as specific as I would have hoped, was nonetheless as keen as it needed to be. Instead of being present at another worthless press conference, I had been present at one of the key conceptual moments in the future of computing -- the World Wide Web -- and Bill Gates had, once again called it right, despite himself.

So, as Bill goes off to retirement and I look forward to slaving away for another 20 years to pay for my kids' education, I see two lessons from this experience. The first is that Bill Gates usually got things right, as long as you gave him enough time to let the market catch up. That was his singular gift, and hopefully he'll apply it to philanthropy with similar results.

The second lesson is that, if Bill is usually right, maybe it's time I shifted careers and got into philanthropy myself. Bill's clearly on to something here, and, who knows, in 20 year he may have figured out a way to put philanthropy on every desktop too. Wouldn't that be a good idea?

Editorial standards