He's the most famous businessman in the world. Reams have been written about how he dominated the revolution in personal computing and is now poised to turn Microsoft into a media and Internet behemoth. But we know little about him as a person. What beliefs and values drive this man who, as much as anyone, will determine the way we look not only at computers but at ourselves and our world? Here's an intimate look at one of the most important minds and personalities of our era.
When Bill Gates was in the sixth grade, his parents decided he needed counseling. He was at war with his mother Mary, an outgoing woman who harbored the belief that he should do what she told him. She would call him to dinner from his basement bedroom, which she had given up trying to make him clean, and he wouldn't respond. "What are you doing?" she once demanded over the intercom.
"I'm thinking," he shouted back.
"Yes, Mom, I'm thinking," he said fiercely. "Have you ever tried thinking?"
The psychologist they sent him to "was a really cool guy," Gates recalls. "He gave me books to read after each session, Freud stuff, and I really got into psychology theory." After a year of sessions and a battery of tests, the counselor reached his conclusion. "You're going to lose," he told Mary. "You had better just adjust to it because there's no use trying to beat him." Mary was strong-willed and intelligent herself, her husband recalls, "but she came around to accepting that it was futile trying to compete with him."
A lot of computer companies have concluded the same. In the 21 years since he dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft, William Henry Gates III, 41, has thrashed competitors in the world of desktop operating systems and application software. Now he is attempting the audacious feat of expanding Microsoft from a software company into a media and content company.
In the process he has amassed a fortune worth (as of last Friday) $23.9 billion. The 88% rise in Microsoft stock in 1996 meant he made on paper more than $10.9 billion, or about $30 million a day. That makes him the world's richest person, by far. But he's more than that. He has become the Edison and Ford of our age. A technologist turned entrepreneur, he embodies the digital era.
His success stems from his personality: an awesome and at times frightening blend of brilliance, drive, competitiveness and personal intensity. So too does Microsoft's. "The personality of Bill Gates determines the culture of Microsoft," says his intellectual sidekick Nathan Myhrvold. But though he has become the most famous business celebrity in the world, Gates remains personally elusive to all but a close circle of friends.