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Gates' Euro 99 tour: If it's Wednesday, its Monaco

But what the world needs is the Bill and Larry show

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It was not billed as the Bill and Larry show at Telecoms 99 in Geneva, but the protagonists would certainly be great performers if they got together. Gates said that W2K would be "available very, very soon" (which sounded like a double amber signal), while Ellison remarked that "They claim Windows 2000, not putting a man on the moon or harnessing nuclear energy, is the most complicated engineering product in the history of mankind. Do you want this on your desktop?" It has become commonplace for Gates to take up a defensive posture about the PC ("not to be underestimated") but he contradicted this with his forecast that what he was calling "intelligent appliances" would take off because of consumer enthusiasm: "these things will really explode without needing a lot of marketing". So what's going to blow up, Bill? WinCE devices overheating? Ellison had another view: "Just as the PC moved the mainframe off centre stage, the Internet has pushed the PC off centre stage." He then got to grips with what he saw as the major problem of the computer industry, which was: "labour shortage ... because [the PC] requires so much labour." Larry also waxed on about wireless technology development outside the US: "users will be European and they will be Asian", and conceded that Europe would soon pass the US in having more Internet users. Neither sparring partner had a response to a sentiment expressed by Greg Papandopoulos, the new CTO of Sun, who observed that there was a "psychological barrier" to many people trusting their data to a server. Accompanying Gates through Europe was a cordon of secrecy, since he still rues the time in Brussels, to make a sales call on the European Commission in February last year, when he was creamed with a number of tarts thrown by the celebrated entarteurs led by Noel Godin. It was a surprise software launch that the did not appreciate, especially as the movie appeared on the Web. The tycoon's progress nowadays in Europe is not like the opera of Nixon in China. There's no time for singing, and no need to hang around airports waiting for an economy, stand-by seat. Air Microsoft jets him around so that he can do Geneva in the morning and Monaco in the afternoon, for the European Technology Roundtable Exhibition (ETRE). The rumour that Larry was in the cockpit was just that, but perhaps the confusion was that his MIG was parked nearby. En route, Gates' persona changed, since he departed in subfusc and arrived in open-necked khaki, which was thought more appropriate for him when extolling the apparent virtues of Microsoft's efforts with interactive TV. Quizzed about his philanthropy, the foundation owner said he now spent two-and-a-half days a month on foundation work. Gates said he saw the world issue as health, with "getting technology to spread around the world" being something of a secondary issue. He still doesn't seem to have thought through that proper water supplies and adequate nutrition could do more for world health than all the pills and potions from US pharmaceutical companies. Inevitably, Gates was asked if Microsoft's stock was overvalued. (Imagine how those PR minders and financial types were holding their breath at this one.) "It's complicated, it should be complicated," he said, to everyone's relief. ®

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