My dinner with Bill Gates

On the eve of Windows XP's launch, David Coursey joined 14 other journalists for a private dinner with the chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft. Here's some of what Bill had to say.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor
COMMENTARY-- On Wednesday, the eve of the Windows XP launch, I was among 15 journalists invited to a private dinner with the chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft. The guests included people from the Wall Street Journal,  the New York Times,  BusinessWeek --and other news organizations you'd immediately recognize.

We have one thing in common: When Bill Gates talks, we write about it. And on this night he was talking just to us.

Over the past 10 years, I've had the opportunity to observe Bill Gates up close and personal perhaps two dozen times. Bill has mellowed a bit in recent years. That being said, however, he is more the same than he is any different.

Small talk still doesn't have much appeal to Bill. My brief, "How's your family?" got a three- or four-word reply that communicated, "They're fine," and that I shouldn't delve further.

Nor does he tolerate people he does not consider to be "supersmart," though he has long stopped prefacing answers with a somewhat pejorative, "I don't know if you're technical or not..." Still, asking Bill Gates a question is unlike asking anyone else on the planet.

Had I remembered that, I would have been more successful on this night. For example, Bill challenged me on one question, which had to do with the cost of a Windows XP upgrade as compared to a Windows 98 Upgrade.

Steven Levy, of Newsweek and book fame, was the most successful questioner among us, able to draw Bill out without giving him reason to go on the offensive.

The reason that Bill challenges questions, I believe, is because he lives in a world almost totally dominated by facts and intelligence. So he questions things that don't seem factual, intelligent, or both. That is, perhaps, his greatest strength.

In matters of personal style, Bill owns the clearest vision of computing's place in the real world--what it is supposed to actually do   for people. In fact, it's not money or power that drives Bill. These are just useful tools in creating what he calls "empowerment" of users--a catch-all term for giving people PCs and other tools for doing the things they'd like to do, making their lives easier, and leaving everyone more prosperous.

Microsoft is fiercely competitive, sure, but what Bill Gates is about is turning this vision into reality. What others see as Microsoft's diabolical machinations, I see as Bill and company just chasing their bliss.

Speaking of bliss, Bill's idea of relaxation is clearly different from my own. He is somewhat legendary for his "vacations"--time away from the office when he reads and dreams up the next big thing.

On his most recent vacation, Bill says he read 12 books. Six were on diseases his foundation is trying to eradicate. One was "Baseball for Brain Surgeons," which disappointed him because it didn't delve deeply enough into the physics of the game. Several were intended to improve his bridge game. The last was a "mindless" novel.

I read a lot, but to me, this sounds more like a classroom curriculum than vacation. But to Bill, this is time to relax. Relaxing while thinking is probably why he seems very happy in his work.

And by the way, if anyone thinks Bill's philanthropic efforts aren't serious--despite the billions of dollars involved--just get him started on childhood diseases in poor countries.

Thirty minutes into dinner, Bill still hadn't touched his salad. They replaced it with a nice fillet (beef, I believe), which he did eat--talking between bites. I think Bill ate dessert, and I am almost certain he consumed no alcohol.

Work--whether it's Microsoft or the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation--is all he wanted to discuss during our dinner. On Monday, I'll tell you what he said about XP, the future of computing, and how he responded to some of the questions you asked me to put to him.

And I'll also introduce you to the dinner's other host, Intel CEO Craig Barrett.

Want to see more of Bill? Check out these video clips.

  • Gates unveils XP: Play Clip
  • Gates gives a sneak XPeek: Play Clip
  • Will XP help drive PC sales? Play Clip
  • Gates plays "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire": Play Clip

If you had dinner with Bill, what would you talk about? TalkBack to me!

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