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Interview With Bill Gates

There aren't many people in the tech world who rise to near "rock star" status in the tech world, but Microsoft chairman and co-founder Bill Gates is one of them. I don't mean rock star in the Bono sense, even though the two icons from opposite ends of the cultural spectrum do spend time together - especially when working on charitable causes - but in terms of the publicity machine, the countless assistants, and general aloofness when it comes to accessibility with media and consumers.

So when the opportunity arose to sit down with Gates here at the Consumer Electronics Show, I decided to see what he had to say. I'd interviewed him twice before: once in person and once via satellite. Not that I expected him to remember me or either of those occasions.

I'd also run into him once on the floor of the now-defunct Comdex trade show when he was wandering among the exhibitors. He came across a video game peripheral that allows players to recreate movement like punches or kicks within a fighting game through a pole-shaped sensor. Not shy about appearing awkward, he tried it out with admirable vigor, although Jackie Chan MAY have done better. Maybe.

Anyway, the experience of interviewing Gates is pretty universal. Microsoft's public relations team works very hard to be in control. I'd already had numerous phone/e-mail correspondences with them before even getting to Vegas just to make it all happen.

I stood outside Microsoft's big display tent talking to one of the publicity folks, trying to find a comfortable position between the blinding sun and chilly shade. I watched as some former colleagues from CNN went in first, then a reporter from Tokyo TV.

Then I was ushered in and quickly debriefed on what Gates was going to unveil at his keynote speech that night. Everything he'd tell me in the interview had to be held until after that time. In the biz it's called embargoed.

I was quickly guided to my stool and given a lapel microphone. Gates was already sitting there and I felt he was awfully far away from me. I tried to lighten the mood by saying, "Bill -- you're so far away!" He smiled but seemed unflappable. All that money can pay for some high-level corporate media training.

We began the interview, and Gates discussed new ways to store and access digital stuff, an Internet-based technology that gives more TV options to the Xbox 360, some Vista tricks and a partnership between Microsoft and Ford called Synch, which is designed to merge personal devices and cars. You can learn more by watching the interview.

At one point during a "walk and talk," I decided to ask him about emerging trends such as creating characters in virtual online environments like "Second Life" and massive multi-player games like "World of Warcraft." I wasn't sure if the cameras were rolling for a minute or two, and so I asked if he'd had time to play any video games. He said he didn't have time in his schedule but appreciated the popularity.

I also asked him about his upcoming "retirement," security flaws in Vista and the future of TV-computing. Again, check out the video for more.

No matter what you're curious about, it's tough to shake Gates from his message. He's obviously done his homework and likely been coached. Business people aren't unlike politicians when it comes to answering the questions they WANT to be asked, not the ones they WERE asked. The Microsoft PR people keep the time short (it was five minutes for the sitdown and five minutes for the walk and talk) and aren't afraid to cut off a question if it's going long. Time is money and all that.

It's hard to know if anything you say even truly registers with Gates. It's perhaps part of the reason journalists get a little anxious interviewing celebrities; you think maybe they've heard or answered it all before. (That and all the hype and reverence surrounding them.)

Maybe the nicest moment was after I knew the cameras had stopped rolling, after we'd shaken hands and Gates had walked about 20 feet away, and he turned back briefly and said, "Thanks for that. Thanks." I wasn't about to ask for an autograph but it made me glad I chose to wear a tie for the interview. Because if you can't be worth a million bucks when you interview Bill Gates, you might as well try to look like it.
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