Bill Gates: `I'm Humble. I'm Respectful'

Microsoft beta-tests Gates 98 in a whirlwind PR tour

It's not every day you meet the world's richest man. No wonder May Saeteurn and Vicky Hoang, 16-year-old student interns at the Tech Museum in San Jose, Calif., were excited. They begged William H. Gates III to pose with them for a snapshot during a Jan. 27 reception for the Microsoft Corp. chairman, one of the museum's benefactors. Afterwards, Hoang gushed about her encounter. Gates was so down-to-earth, she notes. Now she regrets a speech she gave at school recently, pegging Microsoft as a dangerous monopoly. "After seeing him," Hoang says, "I take back all I said."

If only it were so easy to sway the Justice Dept. For now there's a cease-fire, but the battle with trustbusters is far from over. Meanwhile, months of nasty publicity surrounding Justice's wrangle with the Redmond (Wash.) giant have draped the billionaire in the uncomfortable cloak of digital robber baron.

WARM & FUZZY. So, like that other Bill--the one in Washington--on Jan. 27, Gates launched a grand play for public support in his dark hour. Frustrated by his treatment in the courts and the press, Gates set out to restore his reputation in an events-packed day trip around San Francisco and Silicon Valley. It was a bold foray into enemy territory--home turf to such bitter rivals as Netscape, Sun, and Oracle. But thanks to a combination of good planning and goodwill, Gates's whistlestop tour came off like the Pope's recent visit to Cuba.

The road trip was part of a bigger PR plan. After the New Year's holiday, Gates's lieutenants fanned out across the country to spread the word that Microsoft recognizes its image problem--and to promise a kinder company from now on. Gates is doing his part. Prior to the Silicon Valley swing, he hosted a crew from ABC to tape an interview with Barbara Walters scheduled to run on Jan. 30.

In that and other appearances, Gates is seizing every opportunity to portray Microsoft as a champion of the Information Age and a benign advocate for consumers. On the 27th, the sometimes irascible and frequently sarcastic CEO was modest, even self-deprecating. He went out of his way to praise competitors like Netscape. "This was a very gentle Bill Gates," said Garth Saloner, a professor at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business and a sometime critic of Gates.

"LOT OF FUN." And check out what former Congressman Jack F. Kemp had to say. Kemp, a member of Oracle's board but also an avowed libertarian and free trader, met briefly with Gates backstage at a NationsBanc Montgomery Securities Inc. investor conference in San Francisco. "I don't think you can regulate cyberspace," Kemp said afterwards. "Besides, it's a very competitive industry, and that's what's important for the consumer."

That may have been a pleasant surprise. But most of Gates's stops were practically guaranteed to produce appreciative audiences. At each, there were people who had, in some way, been beneficiaries of Microsoft's largesse--from third graders at a school in low-income East Palo Alto, which received 49 computers last year from a Microsoft-backed group, to students at Stanford University, where Gates donated $8 million toward a new computer science center a few years back. "I've had a lot of fun today," Gates said at the end of his unusual round of flesh-pressing and autograph-signing.

So what's his message? Microsoft isn't taking advantage of its Windows monopoly to the detriment of consumers, and it's not oppressing the rest of the PC world. His evidence: 12 of the top 14 computer industry companies are Microsoft partners. Also, he stressed, in its recent actions, the company did not intend to thumb its nose at the government. "When somebody says we can't innovate, we can't do what's been good for consumers, that's something we have to stand up for," Gates said in response to a question. Later, he added: "A picture was painted of Microsoft as defiant of a government order. That was not true. I'm humble. I'm respectful."

Microsoft fans loved the tour. "Microsoft hasn't done a good enough job of educating the government and consumer advocates about the intricacies of software development," says Scott W. Schoelzel, manager of the Janus Twenty fund. "But I think they'll do it now." And Gates made a few converts. "He's so enthusiastic," says Maria Sansano, a senior at San Jose State University, where Gates made an evening presentation. "You can tell he's not in it for the money. He wants to make software better."

But can this act play to a more hostile audience? "This is a friendly crowd," said a partygoer at the museum reception. "Take him over to Netscape. That would be a different story." Indeed. Even as Gates was making his rounds, Netscape announced a worst-ever quarterly loss of $82.3 million--due at least in part to pricing pressures from Microsoft. Well, you can't please everybody.

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