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The richest man in the world takes stock

One day, he says, he'll give it all away. In the meantime, the unstoppable wealth creation machine that is William Henry Gates III has become, by many estimates, the richest man in the world. In 1996 he made at least pounds 18.5m per day. Since the New Year, as the share price of his global software empire, Microsoft, has soared even higher, his personal fortune has ballooned accordingly and is now reckoned to be somewhere in the vicinity of pounds 20bn.

Yet for someone who embodies the digital age, whose ideas have influenced an entire generation of computer-literate youngsters, academics and businessmen - and whose products are used in 80 per cent of all the personal computers in the world - the essence of the man remains elusive.

Like the other self-made billionaires with whom he is now endlessly compared, Harvard's most celebrated drop-out values his privacy, rarely grants interviews and chooses to live and work in the relative obscurity of Seattle, Washington state, rather than the more traditional playgrounds of the rich and powerful.

At Microsoft's campus-style headquarters, where the cult of Bill is adopted by employees with quasi-religious fervour, he is described (according to Time magazine), in the language of his medium. He has, it is said, "incredible processing power", "unlimited bandwidth" and "an agility at parallel processing".

He is said to combine creative thinking with a genuine love of computers and a potent blend of drive and competitiveness. But that, say friends and associates, is only part of the story. Whatever it is that makes him tick, few would deny that hisjudgement has been impressively consistent throughout the past two decades.

Given the near-hysteria that greeted the launch of Microsoft's Windows 95 PC operating system, it's a fair bet that Gates's mighty marketing machine will ensure a similar result for Office 97, the latest attempt at a comprehensive, off-the-peg business software package - on the shelves of a store near you later this year. In the meantime, the man has broadened his horizons still further.

With such a dominant position in the software market, he might be forgiven for sitting back and enjoying his good fortune. But Gates clearly has other ideas.

Already, Microsoft is muscling in on the television business, having launched a cable and online news channel in partnership with NBC - the US broadcasting giant - with the stated aim of becoming a credible rival to CNN.

And as if to illustrate the maxim about birds of a feather, Gates is closely involved in Dreamworks SKG, an equally ambitious film and entertainment conglomerate set up by Steven Spielberg, no small success in his own field.

Still, this drive to diversify betrays a suspicion that the future might not be so comfortable. Many within the industry have argued that Gates underestimated the commercial potential of the Internet, and has been forced into a catch-up.

Microsoft's market position has already meant several run-ins with US anti-trust authorities and the threat of more to come. Watch this space.