Gates becomes a higher power

Step down really a step up

Comment "People think of me as this technical guy," Bill Gates once told me. "In fact, the important point to remember about my background is the fact that I was brought up to be a lawyer. My family are all corporate lawyers, and the conversation at every breakfast was always over the latest legal developments in the business space. You might say it's in my blood."

It wasn't a formal interview. Gates had just done a keynote speech at Comdex, the Las Vegas convention for computer dealers and distributors, back in the 80s - a speech which marked his split from IBM. It was the point where Gates threw his weight behind the 32-bit version of Windows, and Bill Lowe of IBM insisted there would never be any need for anything beyond a 16-bit personal desktop machine, and the 80286 processor was just fine, with OS/2 on it.

I was waiting in the press room for Gates to do a post-keynote question and answer session, having decided that the speeches themselves would be too boring to waste time on; and Gates arrived 20 minutes ahead of the posse, having done his bit. It was a valuable 20 minutes, for me, giving me many insights into the way the guiding mind behind Microsoft actually worked.

I've rather lost touch with Bill Gates. Time was when we were - well, hardly close! - but well acquainted, to the point that he'd stop in the street and chat if we met. And it's instructive to ask: "Why doesn't Bill meet people like me any more?" And, of course, "now that he's decided to step down from his current role, what will this mean to Microsoft?"

Contrary to much hostile propaganda, Microsoft under Gates has seldom sought to compel enthusiasm from the Press. You can find stories from normally reliable sources saying that "huge advertising budgets were re-directed away from critical media" - but that has never been my experience. And whenever I've been involved in such an incident, I've been aware that the story was not well founded.

There have been occasions, of course, where relatively junior executives took it upon themselves to try to bully magazines or newspapers or writers. I've been involved in a couple of those. On one occasion, I was asked to write a weekly column for MSN UK and - after a five week honeymoon period - decided to test the editor's assurance that my column was completely free-ranging and not subject to censorship by Microsoft executives. I wrote a piece highly critical of a particularly bone-headed decision - and it was pulled.

That was the end of my relationship with MSN, of course; but the wrath of senior Microsoft directors when they heard of the editor's decision, was impressive. By and large, for whatever reason, Gates and Ballmer have been consistently determined to respect the independence of the journalistic profession, even when they were personally very scornful (and publicly so) of the individual journalists involved.

So it's a good question: why doesn't Bill keep in touch with the old hacks?

Ignore the people who will write in saying: "I'm a journalist, and I talk to Bill Gates" - I'm sure they do - as being exceptions that prove the rule. In general, the answer is a simple one: Bill Gates has found that his time is far better spent ignoring journalists, and instead, influencing other "opinion formers" these days.

Those opinion formers are politicians. Gates has spent the last two decades transforming himself from a publicist into a lobbyist; someone who goes directly for the nerve centres of power and does deals, rather than someone who hopes the people at those centres will think well of him if they read good things in the media.

And, more significantly, perhaps, Gates has discovered the power of money.

Gates uses money directly. He seeks out a keystone in the financial structure, and either sponsors its erection, or subsidises its destruction. The lesson Steve Jobs taught him with the provision of Apple Mac machines to American schools went home. Today, Gates investments in politically influential groups are significant and (more importantly) effective and unobtrusive.

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