Where does Bill want to go today?

On tape or via satellite, there's no escaping Microsoft's chairman these days. By Andrew North

I was waving my arm frantically, trying to be noticed, like a schoolkid who knows he has the right answer. Unfortunately, I was at the back and sir, in the form of Paul Maritz, a bigwig at Microsoft, just would not look in my direction. He was hosting a question-and-answer session between Bill Gates, the company's god-like chairman, and an assembly of journalists at a Microsoft conference in Long Beach, California. This was the first chance I had ever had to talk to this guru of the information age.

Lots of other journalists had had a turn, but they were all asking anodyne questions about Microsoft's latest software. I wanted to chat. I wanted to find out if he was real. I wanted to say, isn't it weird that I have flown all the way here to hear you speak, when you are just a 20-minute walk from where I live?

You see, Bill was not in the room with us; he was on a live satellite link from the Lanesborough Hotel in London. I had flown to California to cover the conference and one of the highlights for journalists was a live satellite address by Bill. I'd assumed that the reason for the satellite link was an unmissable meeting in the US. No one had told me he was in London.

If you'd told me," I said to a Microsoft official, "I could have just stayed in London and listened to him there." "Oh," she responded airily, "when Bill's in Europe, he doesn't have time to do press. It's often much easier to get journalists to come over here so he can speak to them from wherever he is."

I laughed. Then it dawned. I was being silly and old-fashioned. Geography does not matter to Bill Gates. When you are the king of cyberspace, where you are in relation to your subjects is immaterial. It is the message that counts and how many people you reach. The only drawback to this geography- defying approach is the excess baggage charges - all that satellite and video gear tends to be a bit heavy. Fortunately, Bill has plenty of Microserfs to do the portering.

Chairman Bill is trying to get his message out to more people than ever before. In his case, the medium really is the message because his theme is always the bright and wonderful world that awaits us when PCs are ubiquitous and easy to use. "Information At Your Fingertips", he calls this vision, or IAYF for people who understand only acronyms.

He has become a modern prophet, the PC Pope, preaching to presidents, prime ministers, businessmen, schoolchildren and anyone else who will listen. Sometimes by video, sometimes by satellite and, if you are very lucky, in person. If you are a real fan, you can also keep up with Bill via his weekly syndicated column, which appears in newspapers around the world. Or you can hook up to the Microsoft Web site and listen to him in crackly Net audio, get transcripts of his speeches or even download the Powerpoint slides he uses with each lecture. The transcripts are great - they even tell you where to laugh. Of course, you can send him any comments by e-mail: billg@microsoft.com

His work rate is impressive. During his two-day trip to Britain earlier this month, he fitted in meetings with John Major and Tony Blair, a lecture to schoolchildren at the Science Museum, a speech at a Microsoft conference on business and the Internet and several customer visits. On the first evening, he was the keynote speaker at a Fulbright Commission dinner attended by more than 900 members of the great and the good, including the US Ambassador. When he had finished, it was back to his suite to address us in California, still wearing his dinner suit, though he had removed the bow tie to fit in with the Microsoft dress code.

In the middle of all this, he slipped in a meeting with government officials on a Green Paper. He still found time to record three videos for future presentations, including one for the recent CBI conference, making sure his message would linger that little bit longer. Finally, on bonfire night, he appeared at the Microsoft UK Guy Fawkes party in Reading. Even Bill Clinton would be impressed at this blitzkrieg style.

For every event chosen to receive the Gates gospel, there are many others that get turned down. "We get lots of requests, but we can't meet them all, " says a Microsoft spokeswoman. "Because he is the leading figure in the IT world, everyone wants to ask him where the future is going."

Of course, what all these supplicants are really hoping is that Bill will let slip a little gem of information that will allow them to make an $18bn fortune. But Bill is not keen on that idea. He may come across as a sharing sort of guy, who wants everyone to enjoy his IAYF vision, but only if that vision has Microsoft stamped on it.

If it had one of his competitors' names on it, such as Oracle or Sun or Apple, Bill would be furious. But you seldom hear him mention them; he never attacks them or bothers to defend himself against their gibes. Which must infuriate Larry Ellison or Scott McNealy, the bosses of Oracle and Sun respectively, who never miss a chance to take a swipe at Microsoft.

But his lofty disdain for the opposition does not mean Bill thinks he has won the battle. Far from it. He seems worried that he and his team of crystal ball gazers have misjudged the future and someone else has got it right. He almost missed the Internet boat and he is still wary lest it slips out of his grasp. If he thinks someone is getting ahead, he acts quickly. In September, he was due to address a Paris IT forum via satellite. But when he heard that both Larry and Scott would be speaking in person he rushed over to be there, too. A live appearance was also deemed essential for last week's Comdex show in Las Vegas.

Bill Gates will keep up the proselytising and the prophesying, to make sure people don't do anything silly and buy a computer without anything Microsoft inside it. And there is no escape. However hard you try to avoid him, at some point you will find yourself face to face with Bill Gates. From a TV set, from a Web page, from a video screen or perhaps in a conference hall, those strangely beguiling nasal tones will be reaching out to you. But if you want to ask him a question, make sure you sit at the front

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