Bill Gates has got your money. Now he wants you to love him
What does it profit a man to own the biggest software business on earth, asks John Carlin, if nobody likes you?
Sunday 23 November 1997
Enemies assail the Microsoft chairman on all fronts. The US Justice Department is suing his company; in Congress they are sharpening their knives; Ralph Nader, the veteran crusader for consumer rights, is after his blood; and his business rivals are ganging up on him, determined to break what they consider to be Microsoft's monopolistic grip on the industry that promises to dominate all others in the 21st century.
Beyond his spectacularly well-remunerated inner circle, Mr Gates is admired but not esteemed. Lacking gravitas as well as charm, he comes across to the general public as bloodless, arrogant and creepy in his conviction that his software tools will build the superhighway to paradise on earth.
But now, whether one of his acolytes has had the gumption to tell him that he runs the risk of becoming fixed forever in the popular imagination as the Nerd from Hell; or whether it is simply that his antennae are picking up signals that his empire is under threat - what has suddenly become evident is that he has been taking lessons at the Bill Clinton/Ronald Reagan school of smarm.
Mr Gates's performance last week at a computer industry trade show in Las Vegas had all the ingratiatingly cheesy phoniness of a made-for-TV, political party schmuck-fest. Playing the part of the presidential candidate at a Democratic National Convention, he made his appearance not as a goofily bespectacled face peering big-brotherishly out of a giant digital screen, but in the flesh, walking on to the conference floor on his two feet, just like a normal person. In a game but lamentably awkward attempt to impersonate Mr Clinton, he smiled, shook hands, patted strangers on the back and forced himself to make meaningless eye contact with people whose names he did not know, and did not want to know.
Then he delivered his keynote address. It could have been worse. He could have talked about his love for his mama, or the pain of watching his beloved sister die. He settled for his 18-month-old daughter instead. The audience learned that when she wants to play her favourite computer game, Barney the Dinosaur, she looks up at daddy and yelps, "'Puter, 'puter; 'puter, 'puter." This hoary old politician's stratagem, adapted to the techno- times, served the necessary purpose of reminding Mr Gates's listeners that despite all the evidence to the contrary he is a living, breathing human susceptible to the procreative impulse and the odd pang of paternal affection.
The delivery was mechanical, but whoever wrote the speech knew what he was doing. Maybe it was Michael Deaver, Mr Reagan's presidential image- maker, whose services Mr Gates has recently had the wisdom to enlist. For Mr Deaver knows that in order to win over an audience, the mush has to be leavened with a touch of regular-guy jokeyness. To that end Mr Gates, employing the pleasingly familiar formula of a well-known TV talk show host, trotted off a list of "Top Ten Reasons Why I Love My PC". (In case anyone missed the point, Microsoft had distributed among the delegates 10,000 T-shirts bearing the message "I love my PC".)
Reason number five was, "In just one weekend, I can sit at my PC, collaborate with attorneys all over the world, comment on a 48-page legal brief and e-mail it to the Department of Justice."
The gambit, straight out of the Reagan-Deaver manual, had the cleverly calculated effect of allowing Mr Gates to appear as if he were bravely confronting his legal problems while simultaneously expressing his disdain for his tormentors, no matter how powerful they might imagine themselves to be.
No high-powered presentation is complete in America these days without the prop of a skilfully constructed video. Mimicking the format of a popular Volkswagen commercial, the video showed Mr Gates and his second-in-command, Steve Ballmer, riding along in a car. Spotting a computer manufactured by Microsoft's bitter rivals, Sun Microsystems, they stop, get out, pick up the computer and stick it in the back of the car. They drive off but soon they become uncomfortably aware that the Sun computer is emitting a nasty odour. The video abruptly cuts to a shot of the computer dumped inside a rubbish bin and then back to our two heroes driving smugly into the sunset.
The audience laughed on cue and, for a fleeting moment, the Microsoft messiah was able to savour thethought that people were beginning to love him not for his money, not for his power, but for the new, reconfigured version of himself.
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