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Craig Mundy, the veteran Microsoft exec who oversees all noncomputer consumer products, lets the younger team members lead the discussion. Gates quickly flips ahead through the deck of papers and within minutes has the gist of their report. He starts rocking, peppering them with questions that segue from the politics of their potential partners, the details of the technology, the potential competition and the broad strategy. The answers are crisp, even as Gates drills down into arcane details. No one seems to be showing off or competing for attention, but neither do any hesitate to speak up or challenge Gates. To a man (and they all are), they rock when they think.
"Does this allow scripting in HTML?" he asks, referring to the authoring language used to create Websites. They explain how. He challenges them about why it requires four megabytes of memory. They explain; he drills down more; they finally prevail. There is an intense discussion of layers, sectors, modes, error corrections and mpeg-2 video-compression standards. "Our basic strategy must be processor agnostic," Gates decrees. Everyone nods. Then he shifts without missing a beat to corporate tactics. "Are we going to get Philips and other manufacturers and the moviemakers to agree on a standard?" We'll get to that in a minute, he's told. He wants to get to it now. There is a rapid discussion of the internal politics of Philips, Sony, Time Warner (the corporate parent of this magazine), Matsushita and Toshiba, along with their respective Hollywood alliances.
Gates doesn't address anyone by name, hand out praise or stroke any egos. But he listens intently, democratically. His famous temper is in check, even when he disagrees with someone's analysis of the DVD's capability to handle something called layering. "Educate me on that," he says in challenging the analysis, and after a minute or so cuts off the discussion by saying, "Send me the specs."
Gates does not hide his cutthroat instincts. "The competitive landscape here is strange, ranging from Navio to even WebTV," he says. He is particularly focused on Navio, a consumer-software consortium recently launched by Netscape and others designed to make sure that Windows and Windows CE (its consumer-electronics cousin) do not become the standard for interactive television and game machines. "I want to put something in our product that's hard for Navio to do. What are their plans?" The group admits that their intelligence on Navio is poor. Gates rocks harder. "You have to pick someone in your group," he tells Mundy, "whose task it is to track Navio full time. They're the ones I worry about. Sega is an investor. They may be willing to feed us info." Then he moves on to other competitors. "What about the Planet TV guys?" Mundy explains that they are focusing on video games, "a platform we haven't prioritized." Gates counters: "We can work with them now, but they have other ambitions. So we'll be competitive with them down the line."