I’ve had the pleasure to interviw Bill Gates a few times, usually under very controlled circumstances, under the watchful eye of a Waggener-Edstrom flak, interviewing him for PC Week a lot in the mid-80s, and then a few times, under much more controlled circumstances, when I was Forbes.
We aren’t buddies, I used to have his phone number, I never called it. I haven’t sat down and had the pleasure of a talk with him since an PC Forum in the early 90s in Palm Springs or something, when the PC business was boring as can be and there wasn’t much to talk about except “client server” and CD-ROM publishing.
When I was at Forbes, there was different interest in Gates than there was at PC Week, where we obsessed about NETBEUI and SNA and kernel architectures. Forbes is the magazine of wealth — Malcolm Forbes staked out that turf with the Forbes Rich List — the annual ranking of the 400 richest Americans that has sprawled over the years to include everything including the richest Chinese. There was never a big Gates obsession at Forbes. It was somewhat predictable that the top slots on the list would be owned and retained forever by him, Paul Allen, and Steve Ballmer, with Sam Walton and Warren Buffett moving up and down a few notches every year. But Gates was so far in front that there wasn’t anything new to say year to year. He wasn’t an aggregator of assets — you couldn’t watch with fascination his machinations like a Buffet or say Marvin Davis — people who kicked tires and did deals. Nope, Bill was sort of boring with his wealth. He made an immense stack of dough by winning big once, consolidated it, didn’t blow it early, and most importantly — and this is where I’m burying the lead of this post — he stayed engaged.
Think about it. I used to be on the general assignment desk at a little city newspaper and whenever someone one the lottery I’d get sent out to interview them, take their picture, and ask them: “What are you going to do with the money?”
No one, to my dismay, said anything remotely along the lines of: “I’m going to Vegas, gonna hire three showgirls, hunker down with a case of Johnny Walker Red, a bag of scag, and a Tibetan masseuse …” Nope. Each and everyone said they were going to buy a Winnebago, a home for their mom, and a new microwave.
And keep working.
There, that’s it. No one wants to stop working. You can be Scrooge McDuck/Bill Gates loaded, and still you’re going to want to work. Why? Isn’t the fantasy to do the hammock thing on Tahiti? Hit the snooze button forever and call it quits?
Bill Ziff once gave me a great quote in a story I wrote about his retirement: “Business saved me from a life of abstraction.”
So Gates decides to stop the day to day, focus on the foundation, and do what he pretty much is best at: which is put a face on Microsoft. For the past twenty years I’ve been pissed off at the demonizing of the man — he’s a decent person, smartest guy in the room, fierce competitor — but the Idi Amin treatment he got from the Slashdot ilk and his competitors was always way, way off-base. Windows may suck, Microsoft may have stepped over the boundaries, but Gates as a man, well, let’s just say he doesn’t have horns growing out of the top of his head.
Look at the accomplishments: he provided a de facto standard to an industry marked by incompatibility. That standard drove prices down to the point where PCs are truly accessible by nearly any one who wants one. He then took a ton of the profits and focused it on distributing medication through Africa. Not a bad life.