The adulatory story about Bill Gates in this month’s Fortune repackages virtually every myth that Gates, and his handlers, have ever circulated about himself. We have:
1. Gates the genius.
Time spent with Bill in technology and business reviews is so valuable that Microsofties consider it a currency. They even have a name for it: Bill capital. The board regards his time as a strategic asset to be monitored each quarter.
Then how come nobody ever catches him actually saying anything clever?
2. Gates the programmer. “Gates now devotes most of his time to what he loves best: namely, communing with the geeks who actually build Microsoft’s products.” Communing maybe; programming, no. Gates was never a good programmer — it was Paul Allen who wrote most of the operating system for the Altair — and probably hasn’t written a line of code in twenty years. He quit programming for the same reason he quit the math program at Harvard: the unpleasant realization that there were people who were much, much better at it than he was.
3. Gates the polymath.
…he wrote two bestselling books, developed into a mean bridge player and passable golfer, got married and fathered two children (with a third in the offing), took singing lessons, and after an intensive and exhaustive study of global health issues, founded and funded the world’s richest charitable foundation.
The first of these bestsellers, The Road Ahead, is notable principally for its assertion that “[t]he obvious mathematical breakthrough [to break modern encryption] would be development of an easy way to factor large prime numbers.” OK, he meant an easy way to factor products of large prime numbers; this can happen to anyone. But the books were vapid and probably had copies bought to copies read ratios approaching Stephen Hawking’s. I’ve watched Gates play bridge, and he’s lousy, which is understandable: he doesn’t have much experience and bridge is a tough game. From this fact we can infer the quality of his “passable” golf game. His poker abilities have been apotheosized in much the same way, while in truth, as Manes and Andrews point out in their clear-eyed biography, “[b]y most accounts Gates, better at math than bluffing, was a hit-and-miss player — as likely to lose $500 as win $400.” His exhaustive study of global health issues culminated in his widely praised observation that sick and starving children don’t care much about Internet access. Professional athletes start foundations too. I’ve never heard the man sing.
4. Gates the visionary. The prop for the article is “Longhorn.” What’s Longhorn? Guess.
His new role plays to perhaps his greatest skill–that uncanny ability to foresee how emerging software technologies can be woven together and parlayed into must-have “industry standard” products, which, in turn, reinforce demand for other software from Microsoft and its allies. He has settled into his new job just in time to direct what promises to be the granddaddy of all integration projects–a radically new version of Windows, code-named Longhorn, which, if all goes well, will come out sometime after 2005.
Sometime after 2005? If all goes well? This must be a world record for vaporware lead time. Here we have the vision in full flower. It’s to announce a product preemptively in the hope of discouraging future competitors — a vision in which he is abetted by credulous business journalists, who seem not to notice, or care, that most Microsoft products are really bad.
5. Gates the innovator. “Microsoft is putting its best development teams on a project [Foghorn Longhorn] that will render virtually all its products obsolete. In essence, the software game is simple: Everything depends on innovation.” Please. Every successful product to emerge from Redmond has either been an acquisition (DOS, SQL Server) or a knockoff (Windows of the Mac OS, IE of Netscape, Excel of Lotus 1-2-3, Word of WordPerfect, C# of Java). There’s room for knockoffs in any industry, and some of them, like Excel, are pretty good. But spare us the rah-rah.
6. Gates the humorist.
While it’s apparent that Bill, now 46, still tries to wring the most out of every minute, he also seems more serene and contemplative–and just plain funnier–than at any time in the 18 years I’ve known him. When I mentioned that a story about his new role would be a good chance to update the myth that had grown up around him, he rolled his eyes and deadpanned, “I hope I’m not too mythical.”