Sitting comfortably? Then Gates will tell you about his other firm

With Corbis, Microsoft's chief can see the big picture, he tells David Usborne over muffins in the Big Apple
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Bill Gates is head of a big company on the cutting-edge of technology and he was in New York one snowy day last week to show it off. But, sitting down to breakfast with The Independent on Sunday before heading out to make a presentation to financial analysts and customers, he was not talking about Microsoft.

Bill Gates is head of a big company on the cutting-edge of technology and he was in New York one snowy day last week to show it off. But, sitting down to breakfast with The Independent on Sunday before heading out to make a presentation to financial analysts and customers, he was not talking about Microsoft.

Gates, the world's richest man, has started two companies in his life. This was all about the other one. It is Corbis, the digital imagery company he founded in 1990 with, he said, a vision about how the electronic age would transform the way pictures are managed and distributed to clients globally. By his own admission, it has been a rocky path. Now, he says, Corbis has arrived.

"That vision, although there were lots of twists and turns along the way, is a reality today," he declared, revealing that in 2003 Corbis saw a 20 per cent rate of revenue growth, more than four times that achieved by the publishing and media industries it serves.

Through multiple corporate acquisitions in the 1990s, swallowing 11 other companies including the Sygma photo-journalism agency in Paris in 1999, and the purchase of huge photo archives, notably the Bettman collection, it has become second only in size to its main rival, Getty Pictures.

Together, the two companies - each the brainchild of very rich men (Getty was co-founded by Mark Getty of the oil clan) and both based in Seattle - control as much as 40 per cent of the world's image-accessing market. Advertising agencies, magazines and newspapers everywhere increasingly have little choice when looking for illustrations. But don't mention the word "monopoly" to Gates. "Today there is very strong competition between Getty and Corbis and that works to the advantage of the buyers," he bristled.

Divining the exact state of Corbis's financial health is a fool's game, however. Since it is privately owned, it has no obligation to open its books for public scrutiny. What we do know is this: Gates has invested hundreds of millions of his own dollars. As he put it, Corbis is "not a hobby" but a serious business endeavour. So just how much has he spent so far?

"I don't see the need to be specific about that," he replied flatly when asked over the blueberry muffins. "But I think people can guess just by looking at the acquisitions and adding it up." Gates claims Getty has spent five times as much. The man he chose as Corbis's chief executive in 1993, Steve Davis, wanted us to know, however, that the company is on track to become profitable sometime soon. When? Who knows? But its revenue last year reached $140m (£77m).

In other words, Corbis may be big, but it hasn't turned a profit yet in 14 years. Gates was asked why he chose to dedicate so many dollars to selling images online, given all the entanglements of rights and intellectual property protection, instead of a different commodity like, say, music. Other people were doing that, he replied simply. No one at this meeting dared raise the name of Steve Jobs and his success in music downloading at Apple with the hugely popular iPod, which is causing Microsoft so much grief. After all, this was a party for Corbis.

The company, said Gates, had "reached a milestone". Last year, many of the top executives beneath Davis were replaced and a new management structure put in place. The agency also trumpeted a move to a 24-hour service.

What this day was not about, both men insisted, was preparing Corbis for a public offering, as some press commentaries had suggested. For now, Gates said, it will remain venture capitalist funded. But the unusual detail here, as he put it, is that he is "all the venture capitalists put together". He did hint that going public may be on the cards one day.

"Looking at the very long term, at some point the financial structure will change," he said. "If you say, is this going to happened in the next two to three years, I don't think that it is going to happen. Eventually there will be diversified ownership, and when I say 'eventually' I mean in the 10-year type timeframe."

Davis stressed that Corbis is more than just a "vending machine for pictures". A large part of its activity is rights clearing - negotiating the rights between the holders of the copyrights to any pictures and the clients who plan to use them. Gates added: "In this digital world, you want to make it as easy as possible for people to license things appropriately."

Corbis is different in other ways. It does not consider itself a photo-journalism agency to the extent that Getty does. It represents photographers at all the world's news events, including in Iraq at the moment, but you are more likely to see the Corbis name attached to illustrations for features in magazines and Sunday supplements than you are on the daily front pages. It also claims to have just about every kind of image - photographs, artworks and historical material - imaginable in stock. "If you think there is something that Corbis doesn't have, please let us know," quipped Gates.

Shy and introverted, Gates struggles as an evangeliser, however. Looking almost distracted on occasion, he seemed happy to leave most of the talking to Davis, with whom he meets just once every six weeks or so to monitor how Corbis is going. It was no good trying to dig a little deeper. What is it about photographs with Gates? Are they a passion for him? Does he have a favourite picture? Apparently, this billionaire does not.

A better setting would have been his sprawling hi-tech home outside Seattle. Ask about that, and especially the 30-odd flat-screen monitors he has in its rooms to show digital pictures, and he opens up. He and his wife Melinda generally shuffle the images displayed on these monitors every week. Nearly always they come from Corbis's stock of 70 million pictures. He likes sunsets and pictures to do with the Second World War, golf, sailing and Nobel Prize winners. Last weekend was their 10th anniversary. So he had them showing their wedding pictures.