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Pie attack suggests Gates needs shepherding

This time it was a custard pie in the face. Could it just have easily been a bullet in the gut?

That is the subject du jour among startled industry executives following the bizarre assault in Brussels Wednesday against Bill Gates. While en route to deliver a speech on technology and education, Microsoft's chief executive was nailed in the kisser by a local prankster who has made a reputation for pulling similar stunts. Gates, who was unhurt, suffered no more than a wound to his pride, soggy glasses, and an unexpected charge on his weekly cleaning bill.

The incident recalled former Apple CEO John Sculley's near kidnap as he was jogging near his California home, as recounted in his autobiography. And Adobe Systems co-founder Charles Geschke was abducted and held for ransom in 1992. That case-Geschke was subsequently rescued unharmed-focused into sharp relief the dilemma of celebrity and wealth in a media-linked planet and the attendant security risks encountered by the rich and the famous.

The early word out of Microsoft (MSFT) is that its globe-trotting chief does not plan to rein in his hectic "if this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium" pace.

"One of the things Bill enjoys most is going out to our [subsidiaries], meeting customers overseas, doing speeches etc.," said company spokeswoman Mich Mathews. "His schedule remains as busy as ever. I look on this as an isolated incident. This guy does 'pie attacks' as a career. He targets public figures and then makes money selling the footage to the media."

Yet Gates' emergence as one of the most recognized people in the world also raises security concerns that were not so paramount when Silicon Valley was in its infancy. Executives say that the increasingly central importance of information technology to the economy has also elevated them into public roles as media celebrities-sometimes uncomfortably so.

"There's nothing special about what we do. You pay with your celebrity," said Philippe Kahn, the CEO at Starfish Software, who was a highly visible executive in the 1980s and early 1990s when he ran Borland International Inc. "Unfortunately, Bill is one of best known figures of the world. and unfortunately, this goes with the territory. It's outrageous and terrible and I hope [the Belgian authorities] do something about it to set an example."

Since leaving Borland, Kahn has maintained a low profile. However, his Borland legacy endures and it's not unusual for people to recognize him when he ventures out in public.

"Nothing irritates me more than being in a restaurant where people recognize me and want to start a conversation," Kahn said. " I hate that. I hate that. Because I'm a family person with four kids and that's the last thing I want. So I can't imagine what I'd feel like in Gates' position with someone attacking you. I'd quit. Life's too short. Why would you want that?"

"It's an interesting problem," said Rosanne Siino, the director of corporate communications at Netscape Communications Corp., whose co-founder Marc Andreesen zoomed to public prominence after the company's spectacular initial public offering in August 1995. "We had an issue with Marc because people were mobbing him in crowds everywhere we went."

She said the Adobe kidnapping served as a wake-up call for computer and software companies to step up their security and require identity badges and cameras in their buildings. But the sensitivity to security did not apply in a vacuum.

"You have to be careful," she said. "A company can't do business if your executives can't go on the road. What happens is that we have to be a little more aware of where we're taking them. ... We haven't seen this as a real danger yet. We're very aware of it but most people are greatly respectful most of the time."

Copycat attacks?

Although several executives voiced concern that the attack on Gates could spark copycat assaults, Eli Barkat, the CEO of BackWeb Technologies Inc., said the Brussels incident was not a harbinger.

"I think it's an isolated incident," Barkat said. "Some people are afraid, but it's not because of the computer industry thing. If you're rich, you have to protect yourself against people who want to rob you. ... The No. 1 reason for people to be violent is all based on one word: revenge. That's the No.1 thing people need to care about as they think about their security."

Interestingly enough, Gates continues to freely walk the floors of trade shows like Comdex with little in the way of a discernible security detail. When he showed up for an interview at PC Week's offices in Medford, Mass., he was accompanied by Mathews, a slight 5-foot-something woman-hardly what you'd expect from the world's richest person.

So why take the risk? In the end, the answer might be as simple as this: It's the job.

"I do think these people are at risk," said one senior public relations executive who asked to remain unidentified. "But they aren't fools and they have to balance the risks with the benefits and part of their role is to be public figures. It goes with the territory."