Bill Gates: the exit interview

We've been fortunate enough to sit down with Sir Bill a number of times over the years -- and even been lucky enough to call him a fan. While we're certainly hoping this won't be our last run-in, we couldn't help but feel a little sentimental knowing that chances are the next time we see him, he'll no longer be in charge of Microsoft. This time around we talked a little about his historic 2007 sit-down with Steve Jobs, his plans for the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, and even a bit about what he'll be up to in his new part-time gig at Microsoft.

Thanks so much for meeting with us. I appreciate it. So I was at the keynote last night and I saw the video that you did. Being that you're looking for a job, I just wanted to let you know we're always hiring--

Excellent --

... looking for editors anytime. I know you've written some stuff for the Guardian recently--

Well I love your stuff.

You know where to find me.



So I was at D this year and obviously you and Jobs were at it as well. And you guys got up on stage together, I think that was -- besides being a really historic moment -- very emotional for a lot of people in the audience. I want to know what it was like for you personally. I think a lot of people were confused as to whether or it was truly bittersweet, or just bitter. I felt it was really bittersweet.

Oh, I like Steve. And I've always been extremely complimentary of the impact he's had on the industry. Part of it, in terms of that whole crowd though, is that the personal computer industry was started by people who were very young and there was a set of people who believed in it and all kind of grew up together. So Steve and I are virtually the same age -- he's a little bit older, he got into it about three years after we had done the original personal computer stuff -- and he was my sixteenth customer for the BASIC interpreter. I had done the Commodore six months before, if you remember that, I had done the TRS-80 eight months before, and then they needed the floating point basic. I came out and I actually worked more with Woz -- Steve wasn't a hands-on engineer involved in that thing -- because Woz had been trying to do his own BASIC but just couldn't get it done.

So we've always worked together on various things. When Steve did the Mac, that was our closest relationship. That was about thirty people at Microsoft, twenty people at Apple betting on moving the graphical interface into the mainstream. That was a phenomenal experience because we did the only 3rd party software that was on that machine the day that it shipped. And when they went 512 [kilobytes of memory], we did some stuff. They thought [Lotus] Jazz was going to the breakthrough product, but we showed them that Excel was the breakthrough product. So there's always been good back and forth. I am very sincere that Steve has unique skills that I just don't have at all and it's been phenomenal to see how he has been able to make a difference with what he's done.

So when you got up there, what was it like for you emotionally? I mean, Steve quoted the Beatles; it felt like there was just this bizarre camaraderie / rivalry that is almost inexplicable.

Oh absolutely. We had a chance -- I think Steve and I are the two luckiest people in the industry in terms of the center seat we've had, and the involvement we've have been able to have. And we know that it's been a special thing and where we work together it's helped the industry, and even when we've competed it has probably been good for the industry.

So I read this GQ article, the profile that I guess they did of you around the time the new Zunes launched, and it was funny because the one thing they really focused on was that when they spoke to you, you seemed really checked out. In your last few months of tenure at Microsoft -- what is that like? Are you really spending all of your time on the Foundation right now? Or, are you still really focused on the technology?

I am totally full time Microsoft. As hardcore as ever -- you can ask anybody at the company. But come July 1st that will change. Maybe even the month of June will be goofy, not because I'll be focused on other things, but because, it being the last month, they'll be some special things and people that I'll go around and talk to. But in terms of lots of meetings of making our search better, the next version of Office, the next version of Windows -- I'm working harder now than any time in the last decade.

Is there anything on the table that you feel like you never really got to see through or fully accomplish?

Well, the tablet is not mainstream. Reading off the screen is not mainstream. Getting your TV over the internet -- we talked here about how Mediaroom is up to a million users. But that's just on its way to mainstream, that's not mainstream yet. So when I think about all the different scenarios, there are some that we've have made a lot more progress than on than others. Productivity, for example, although there is still a lot to be done on that. Computing in the cloud is this whole new frontier of how you make software automatically manage the hardware resources, recover, and load balance -- there's some phenomenal things we are doing related to that, both for the consumer and business computing. So this is an amazing time. I believe that all these things will happen but it takes time. Just like the medical technology -- things I'll be working on in the future -- those will take more time than I'd like.

Speaking of productivity, I think that Microsoft has really, if anything, totally nailed productivity over the years and totally nailed business and the enterprise market -- and that's really been the backbone of Microsoft business. But do you ever feel like there has been any regrets about shortcomings in the consumer market? As in, not really focusing on the consumer front the way that Jobs and Apple does? Or do you feel like you have really covered all of those bases?

I think the key thing is the concept of the personal computer and the software industry. That's what we started in 1975 and the core of the company is that platform. There are third party applications that are on Windows to do consumer-like things -- I think as we get speech and touch and mainstream pen into them, you'll see a wave of those that are dramatically better. That's our key role. Yes, Microsoft itself will do photos and music and all that, but the thing that has always differentiated our platform is the breadth of third party solutions. The hardware variety and that software applications variety. And we need new frontiers, of which I think natural interface and service-connections (that I talked about last night) -- those are going to enable these new things. So we are proud of the games work that people are doing on Windows but these breakthroughs can take that to the new level. I think that emphasis on third parties is something we've always done better than anyone else and hopefully it will hold us in a good position.

On the Windows side. One hundred million licenses, obviously that's an enormous amount. But I think in the last few months, especially within from media and the blogosphere and all of these different places, Vista specifically is getting hit really hard with a lot of negative PR -- a pretty big backlash from users who are downgrading to XP. Or at least a lot of people talking about downgrading. Do you feel like right now you are leaving under a cloud? That the company's core product not meeting consumer expectations?

I wouldn't say that. Any version of Windows is going to have lots of great new things that people use and things that are tough. With Vista, a lot of it's the transition from XP to Vista. Did we get the device drivers ready in the right way and time? Did we make it easy to do the upgrades as well as we should? When people get up and running on Vista they are basically quite happy. Not perfect -- but quite happy. It is that transition where we definitely need to get a better job up on that piece.

Now, in time, more of those drivers are becoming available. It is definitely a product where we look back and say, okay, a lot of good things but we are going to change the things where it just didn't become trivial to step up to the new version. That's always been a hard with Windows and we're looking at some of those challenges and why we didn't think they'd be as hard as they were -- and making sure that we do better at it. The feedback is important to us, but it is a product that has lots of good features. I encourage people to use it! We are proud of the features in there!

Well, of course! But are you personally fully satisfied with it?

I'm never fully satisfied with any Microsoft product.

Like the saying, "Software is never complete, only abandoned"?

There are always the features that I wanted to get in, or the things that I wish were a little more polished. The people who are good in these companies are really sort of ridiculously demanding people. They have to sort of know when to back off so that thing can eventually ship. But I look at any product -- and I'm better at Microsoft products -- and say what I wished what was better about the product.

In terms of the Foundation [which focuses partly using technology to enhance health care in developing nations], is it your intention to run that as you would a software company, or as you would a technology company?

Of course not. The nature of the problem is very different. I do not think technology companies are not all of one ilk either. Here at the foundation you have researchers in academia, great scientists in drug companies, you've got rich-world governments, poor-world governments, non-profit organizations, you've got to activate the public. The biggest part of the Foundation is solving twenty diseases. Malaria, AIDS, TB -- some diseases, because they are only in the poorest countries, rich people have never even heard of, like visceral leishmaniasis. In the top ten, -- but not broad awareness.

So the way we are going to orchestrate more energy and more resources, where we'll get a lot more progress where there is some market failure -- there is no market incentive driving these things -- that is going to require invention. And I wouldn't enjoy it if it wasn't at very early stage. And I am going to have to learn lots of things going back. I've got a great library of science, biology type things. The second half of the year I will spend lots of the year boning up on them.

So, foundation is in place and you've got this amazing, gargantuan grant from Buffet. What's the first plan? What is your first year going to look like there, and what do you hope to get accomplished in this first twelve months?

Well I've been part time on the Foundation and there is great full-time people there including Patty Stonesifer (the CEO), and my wife spends time. So I wouldn't say it's a huge discontinuity. We are going from $1.5 billion in grants a year in 2006 to $3 billion in 2009. So we are on a ramp, which means we are more ambitious. As we make breakthroughs, like new vaccines, then you actually need more money to get the manufacturer to fund the delivery systems. But fortunately the public's awareness of these things have gone up somewhat. The Global Fund and the work that Bono has done together with us has started to get a little bit of consensus about what needs to be done.

So I'm going to be reaching out to business leaders who I think can get their companies more involved and using their expertise, and hopefully my voice will help with that. I'll be talking with other philanthrophists telling them about how much fun I'm having doing it and suggesting that I'd love to see if we can get them involved. So there are some things that I think I'd bring to it that my [full-time position at the Foundation] will let me do that haven't been done. But the goal of the Foundation in terms of making the health of the poorest two billion as good as the richest two billion -- that has been there from the beginning and I'm just really doing things to accelerate it.

One last question: what kinds of pet technology products do you think you'll be keeping at Microsoft? You've got to have your fingers in the pie a little bit!

I love natural user interface and particularly the research groups to do that. I want to stay involved with that and make sure that when it's time to really put these things in the mainstream that Microsoft is jumping on it and taking that big risk. Search is obviously a huge thing for us that we put about a brilliant people on. Right now -- people don't know -- can do something really differentiated that could be fun to help drive that piece forward? Steve [Ballmer] will pick; my non-Microsoft time I'll be thinking about software for health systems and education. So I will probably be over at Microsoft seeing where their breakthroughs can help in those areas. But the day of the week that I'll be at Microsoft will be probably three projects, I'd guess.

Thank you so much for meeting with us.

You bet! Good talking to you.

Good luck!