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They broke up in 1987, partly because Winblad, five years older, was more ready for marriage. But they remain close friends. "When I was off on my own thinking about marrying Melinda," Gates says, "I called Ann and asked for her approval." She gave it. "I said she'd be a good match for him because she had intellectual stamina." Even now, Gates has an arrangement with his wife that he and Winblad can keep one vacation tradition alive. Every spring, as they have for more than a decade, Gates spends a long weekend with Winblad at her beach cottage on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where they ride dune buggies, hang-glide and walk on the beach. "We can play putt-putt while discussing biotechnology," Gates says. Winblad puts it more grandly. "We share our thoughts about the world and ourselves," she says. "And we marvel about how, as two young overachievers, we began a great adventure on the fringes of a little-known industry and it landed us at the center of an amazing universe."
After a recent whirl of travel that included a speech in Las Vegas and a meeting in Switzerland, Gates detoured to a secluded resort in New York's Adirondacks to spend a weekend with Melinda and Jennifer. There they played with 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles from a craftsman in Vermont who makes them for customers like Gates. Melinda has helped broaden her husband. Instead of studying biotechnology together, they find time to take singing lessons.
Gates is ambivalent about his celebrity. Although he believes that fame tends to be "very corrupting," he is comfortable as a public figure and as the personification of the company he built. Like Buffett, he remains unaffected, wandering Manhattan and Seattle without an entourage or driver. Nestled into a banquette one Sunday night at 44, a fashionable Manhattan restaurant, he is talking volubly when another diner approaches. Gates pulls inward, used to people who want his autograph or to share some notion about computers. But the diner doesn't recognize him and instead asks him to keep his voice down. Gates apologizes sheepishly. He seems pleased to be regarded as a boyish cutup rather than a celebrity.
The phone in Gates' office almost never rings. Nor do phones seem to ring much anywhere on the suburban Microsoft "campus," a cluster of 35 low-rise buildings, lawns, white pines and courtyards that resemble those of a state polytechnic college. Gates runs his company mainly through three methods: he bats out a hundred or more E-mail messages a day (and night), often chuckling as he dispatches them; he meets every month or so with a top management group that is still informally known as the boop (Bill and the Office of the President); and most important, taking up 70% of his schedule by his own calculation, he holds two or three small review meetings a day with a procession of teams working on the company's various products.
There is a relaxed, nonhierarchical atmosphere as the seven young managers of the "WebDVD" group, all in the standard winter uniform of khakis and flannel shirts, gather in a windowless conference room near Gates' office. They have been working for almost a year on a digital videodisc intended to provide content along with Web browsing for television sets, and he wants to review their progress before leaving for Japan, where he will meet with such potential partners as Toshiba.