Billion-dollar man back in his element

Charles Arthur joins a celebrity audience to see Bill Gates, head of Microsoft, demonstrate his new on-line network
Bill Gates, the richest person in the world, rolled into London yesterday and almost immediately ran into a sticky question.

"Would you want to see Bill Gates, The Movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger playing you?" asked Jonathan Ross, the television personality.

Mr Gates thought not.

No one could fault him on his casting ability. He is not, to be truthful, the muscular type. But the man who has made a $13bn fortune (pounds 8.4bn) as chairman of Microsoft, the world's largest computer software company, still wears big glasses and ties that could be called unfashionably wide.

However, his presence packs an intellectual muscle that means people are keen to meet him, or be seen with him.

Officially, Mr Gates, 38, was in London to launch Microsoft Network, the on-line service by which users of Windows 95, the company's new operating system, can get home banking via Barclays Bank, financial information from Dun & Bradstreet, or order clothes and other goods electronically from retailers such as Great Universal Stores.

To show off these capabilities, Mr Gates first demonstrated the system to an invited audience of celebrities, including Mr Ross, Carol Vorderman, the former Tomorrow's World presenter, David Gower, the former English cricket captain, Angela Rippon, the former BBC newscaster, and David Emanuel, the designer of the wedding dress worn by (the then) Lady Diana Spencer when she married the Prince of Wales.

Given he was formerly a full-time software programmer, Mr Gates was back in his element. He gave them his vision of the future. "The opportunity from these technologies, such as personal computers, is pretty incredible," he said. "It's going to lead to a pretty fundamental change in education and revolutionise business."

Mr Gates still sees great possibilities for the education of the world's children.

"I do believe that the computer can be used to improve education, but there have been promises made in the past that haven't been lived up to. There are ways of using computers in education where it is just a quizzing device, asking questions that have to be answered. That isn't so useful.

"But computers can be used in schools so that the curriculum fits around what's available through the computer. I really envy kids who grow up today with PCs with multimedia and CD-roms and all the educational tools available today."

Mr Ross thought that his own time had been well spent. "I'm quite interested in computers. I've used Apple Macs for 10 years. But today is something to tell my friends about - 'I saw Bill, yeah that Bill, the other day, told him a few things he's got fundamentally wrong, you know'..."

But overall, he declared himself impressed. "He's not nearly as nerdy as I expected, you know," he said.

By which time Mr Gates was safely out of earshot.