NEW YORK - As Microsoft unleashed a marketing blitz across Manhattan and the world Monday, Chairman Bill Gates talked up the company’s two most important new products, which head to the masses starting today. But he also took time in an interview to reflect on what the launch meant to him personally, his years at Microsoft and the next challenges.
In a spacious hotel suite near Grand Central Station, Gates, 51, seemed at ease, and he smiled frequently during the interview with The Seattle Times. For good reason. At long last, Windows Vista and Office 2007 are done and on the market. Time to party. And get the sales pitch on.
Gates, who did interviews ranging from NBC’s “Today” show to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central, sat - and sometimes stood - as he talked just after lunch. An unfinished game of solitaire ran on a Vista PC in a corner of the room.
Here’s an edited excerpt of the conversation.
Q: Do you think this is perhaps the last Windows product launch that you’ll personally participate in before the transition to full-time work at the philanthropy in 2008?
Bill Gates: Well, yes, there won’t be a major Windows release in the next 18 months, and so I’ll be part-time at Microsoft by the time they do that launch. Even after that, I’ll be chairman, and (Chief Executive) Steve (Ballmer) will pick a few things for me to focus on. ...
Steve’ll decide just based on what projects I’ve been in whether I’m key to launches, or whether they want to roll out the old man, or what they want to do with me. In the meantime, I’ll try and make a malaria-vaccine launch as fun and exciting as a Windows launch, which, uh, that’ll take some doing.
Q: What’s it like to be so closely identified with a product that so many people use on a daily basis?
Gates: Well, it’s fun when I get to go out to schools and see kids using it in ways I wouldn’t have expected.
My daughter is at a school where they use laptop computers, and I’ve always believed in that Tablet (PC) concept. But to sit there and see her inking out her homework - and, you know, she mails me what are called journal files that shows how she does on the quiz. It’s pretty neat to see the technology at work.
And whenever you see people struggling (with technology), too, it reminds you that, hey, we have a lot more that we can do. ...
Q: Did you write any code?
Gates: No. I mean there may still be some of my old code around, but none of the new code in either Windows Vista or Office was written by me.
Q: Do you miss that aspect of it at all?
Gates: Well, there’s a certain beauty to being a hands-on, individual contributor, and we have some brilliant people who have chosen that to be their whole career. They’re phenomenal in what they do.
I’ve got the role, or had the role, of looking at all the different pieces and trying to make them fit together and really push on the things that I think are going to be most important in the future. Which, you know, I chose that, and it’s got a lot of rewards.
I do miss the day when I knew every line of code and nobody could change anything without my agreeing to it, but that only works for a very small company.
Q: This is the first operating system to have been developed since your Trustworthy Computing initiative, and security is certainly one of its top selling points. What gives you confidence to say this is Microsoft’s most secure Windows system ever?
Gates: There’s no doubt about that, partly because of the way that Windows Update is set up now to make it so automatic for people to get any improvement that we make. So the way that we’re scanning the Internet, and (are) vigilant 24 hours a day, there’s just nobody who’s doing that and has this kind of update structure. ...
It’s not like this is the end of our work on security, but this operating system, together with the update stuff we do, is dramatically more secure than anything we’ve done or anything out there.
Q: How has the competitive landscape for Microsoft changed since the last Windows release?
Gates: Five years is a long time in this industry, and I guess five years ago, you know, Sun and Netscape were perfect companies that understood everything, and Windows was nothing. And, you know, in that same extreme way of looking at things, people say, what about Google or what about the latest great work that Apple has done?
So (it’s) always very competitive, always someone who’s kind of new and done something right, and that’s great. ...
Q: The demise of television is also something that’s being bandied about lately - or more specifically, I think you said at Davos (the World Economic Forum), the convergence that’s been talked about. I’m curious, is Vista something that’s going to help accelerate that? Do you see Vista doing it, or is it more other things that Microsoft is working on?
Gates: ... The key is to get away from broadcast as the way you’re only getting your video signals and use the Internet so that you can go out and get things that are mostly of interest to you, like your kid’s sports game or some lecture, and have that right there on the guide. ... You can have the news segments of interest be longer and the ones you don’t care about be skipped over. ...
Q: You’ve talked about how sometimes people in the developed world fail to recognize some of the inequities and diseases of the developing world. And I wonder if there’s any fear that being able to skip over news segments that don’t interest us would only give people another means to further distance themselves from some of those problems.
Gates: I don’t think so. I think the ability to see what’s going on in those other countries and have people from those countries writing about their experiences - I think that will make the world a smaller place, and this distance that’s hurt us (will) make that less of a problem.
People really do care. It’s just been kind of complicated. How do you get involved, and if you do get involved, how do you make sure that what you’re doing makes a difference? The Internet gives us a chance to say, “OK, I’d like to loan money to somebody I meet or somebody of a certain type” and then follow up on it, even see pictures of what the result of that is.
Q: In what ways do Vista and Office 2007 surpass what you dreamed PCs could do when you set out to build software? And conversely, where does today’s technology kind of fall short? What’s left to be done?
Gates: The original dreams included things like computers that could see and listen and talk and they were just a lot smarter, and so there’s a lot left to be done in the operating system and in the applications. ...
We’ve got some big frontiers in programming, in natural interface and devices working together. Even wild things like robotics coming in ... The bet we made with Microsoft is that software would be important. And every development we’ve seen is just the increasing importance of software. ...
So, you know, software is a key component, and that’s where Microsoft’s research should guide us to be able to be a leader.
I’ve always wanted the perfect machine. We’ll probably never get there.