Bill Gates chats with Dirk de Pol
The year is 2002. By 1996 Microsoft – then already the world market leader in software – had begun its transformation into a multinational media company commanding a multitude of channels, cable nets, satellites, frequencies, and contents. Since then Microsoft has not only successfully led the way in converting TV and radio to satellite and bandwidth systems, but also invested massively in biotechnology – the second most important growth market. For the first time in years Bill Gates, the richest man in the world and possibly the most powerful one, has agreed to be interviewed for Telepolis.
Dirk de Pol: Mr. Gates, for many years you’ve had to hear how you intend to achieve nothing less than a total domination of the software market. Today you are the leader in nearly every sector of the media. What goals are still left for you to pursue?
Bill Gates: A monopolist’s work is never done. That’s something we’ve had to learn over and over in the last few years. You can just never get your hands on that last 20 percent. So we cannot possibly set the goal of achieving some kind of ultimate victory. But exactly that last, stubborn piece of the market is the most interesting one. Because that’s where new products often take off – a fact that has caused many big companies to stumble in the past. That’s the segment you have to watch most carefully.
Dirk de Pol: How did you handle the long years of investigations by the Federal Trade Commission and the limitations that legislators always wanted to impose on you?
Bill Gates: (laughs): We have whole departments that don’t deal with anything else! But watching governments and parliaments trying to keep up with the developments has an ambiguous pleasure of its own. They aren’t shaping the world anymore, haven’t really for some time. Do you remember when a couple of years ago the last telephone monopolies were abolished in Europe?
Dirk de Pol: Sure. What about it?
Bill Gates: At the same time, I already held shares in all decisive satellite systems and in cable grids in more than twenty countries. That’s a little as though someone had discovered a way to regulate bicycle traffic in an age when the whole world was already zapping around in bullet trains.
Dirk de Pol: But a telephone network is not the same as a cable grid?
Bill Gates: At first, no. At first cable systems are only local. But when you’ve got them all over the world, then you only need to wire them up to each other. And then you’ve got a global network, also good for telephone and Internet services, given sufficient bandwidth. Sooner or later everyone wants digital cable TV, whether interactive or not. And in the future we will be delivering products and services to the mass market in a very big way through the cable grid. The cable grid carries image, sound, data, and everything else in the world you could possibly want that can be digitalized.
Dirk de Pol: It’s not without reason that you are called the Lord of Bandwidth. But the truth is that you only developed an interest for cable networks rather late in the game – specifically just when the failure of your own grid, the Microsoft Network, could no longer be denied.
Bill Gates: Right. But failure is not a term that we use around here. We made a few mistakes, and no doubt we’ll be making some more in the future. What’s important is that we learn from our mistakes. For the experienced computer users at that time, the only question was whether they would go online with an independent server or through AOL or Compuserve. Even though eighty percent of them were using our software, we were unable to win them over to MSN. We drew our conclusions from that, and took the next step. Our satellite and cable networks are now instead serving the far larger market of inexperienced and insecure general media users. We supply everything from a single source, tailored to individual needs: television, Web TV, pay TV, radio, telephone, Internet access. And if you rent or buy one of our MS multimedia housing units, then you get it all for truly excellent rates. Regardless of where problems might arise, you always have a single partner to contact for help. That’s our idea of the service of the future. We unfortunately only discovered very late that this model, very successful in Germany, could also be transplanted to the States, if only to new housing projects. Such projects are wonderful. There is just no better way of combining the demand for communication, information, and entertainment, while at the same time stimulating it. The best thing is, with the combined buying power we can negotiate very good prices for the services of other companies, and pass those savings on to our customers.
Dirk de Pol: Now critics recently described the whole concept as the “mother of all highway robberies,” but your multimedia residence projects are also considered successful, in part because they replicate growing and yet secure small-town structures, all intended to suggest a feeling of community…
Bill Gates: And actually that is judged very favorably by the people themselves…
Dirk de Pol: Let’s return to the theme of mistakes that you just mentioned. Just recently you had difficulties with employees who objected to your security and supervision measures…
Bill Gates: Yes, there are some people who did not really think through the questions that are involved here.
Dirk de Pol: There was, among other things, an accusation that you had planted audio-video bugs in the homes of some of your programmers.
Bill Gates: That was a slander and it was promptly dismissed from court. Many people seem not to understand that any business involving information is very delicate. Most information that is conveyed goes through networks that I own. That might also mean that the programmers who write software for these networks command great influence. They have direct access to information that is often very sensitive. Such information can be easily copied, or just memorized and taken home. There you might talk about it to your wife or your friends, and before you know it, a capital secret has turned into a fast-moving rumor. But let’s not misunderstand each other: at no time did I ever have any of my employees spied upon!
Dirk de Pol: But Microsoft has always been known for extreme security measures. You store all of your employees’ fingerprints, retina patterns, DNA tests, even voice diagrams which are then used in routine stress analyses.
Bill Gates: That’s true, but the significance of these measures has been chronically misunderstood. You have to see this in a larger context. For years our campus has been the definitive example of a successful synthesis of communications and security systems. Here’s one example, just from last week: One of our programmers had a circulatory collapse. It was night, she was working alone in the office. Our newly developed GPB, the Global Positioning Biomonitor which is now worn by all of our employees, signalled the paramedics immediately. Not only were they there in just seven minutes, they also knew as they arrived that she was having a diabetic seizure and that she had a lot of allergies. GPB is coming to the market at the end of the year, by the way.
Dirk de Pol: Another attention grabber is the zipper module system that you’ve been using for the last two years in a few areas of software programming.
Bill Gates: There are many routine programming tasks that require practically no creative contribution, just a good clean code. These kinds of tasks are divided into modules that can only be combined into a stable program by using the necessary combination codes. The individual programmer knows what the particular module that he’s working on is good for, but he can’t integrate it into another program of his own. I think it’s completely normal that a company like ours is always making efforts to perfect management techniques and protect resources. Anyway, this whole issue is going to be history in three to five years at the latest. By then our control systems will have reached the maximum possible security, and they will quickly become the standard for all other business enterprises.
Dirk de Pol: Is that one of the reasons for your increasing involvement in the areas of brain research and biotechnology?
Bill Gates: Yes, we are now involved in companies like Affymetrix, Amgen and many others. But the synthesis of biotech and security systems is only one part of it, even if it is important. It won’t be long before our bioscanners will be capable of detecting someone’s intention to betray us, at any rate if they don’t have the physical discipline of a yoga master. Lately we have put a lot of time into the development of neuronal networks that can differentiate between a truly serious criminal intention and the kind of revenge and betrayal fantasies that crop up in any business, that sometimes even affect the most loyal of employees. Such fantasies seem to be part of a kind of psychic purification system, a bit like office mobbing. It took us a long time to understand that, and we are still in the midst of finding solutions.
Dirk de Pol: You haven’t just invested in biotech, however – the market with the second largest growth rates – but also in a great number of other key areas. You have always been known for collecting an astonishing number of visions and ideas in your head, and often drawing very surprising conclusions.
Bill Gates: Given the decision to take on satellite and cable networks, it was also obvious that we should start buying into the largest photo agencies and television stations in the world, or enter into alliances such as with Murdoch, NBC, and CNN-Time Warner. Pictures, photos, and films make up about 70 percent of the total data flow. The rest is text. We are really proud of how, despite all the resistance and prophecies of doom, we successfully married print media and the digital media…
Dirk de Pol: And isn’t that the right context for viewing your decision, in 1997, to donate four hundred million dollars in software and equipment to libraries in the U.S.?
Bill Gates: Sure. Back then the response was that this was just a drop in an almost empty bucket. But that drop made a lot of ripples. Today all libraries are wired to each other with the help of our software and nets. Today, if anyone knows how well our educational system is doing, then it’s us. We know which newspapers and books are bought or borrowed. We know which films, music and programs appeal to individuals, and we can adjust our offerings accordingly. And now you’re giving me a worried face. Of course for years now we’ve had to patiently take in all the usual pabulum and doom about protecting the poor innocent super-fragile citizens. Let’s get real. No one is being forced to be our customer.
Dirk de Pol: With your involvement in education, plus the academic positions and facilities you’ve created, do you see yourself setting forth an old American tradition? At the same time with biotech you’re moving into a distant and entirely new area for you, with hardly any regulation on the international level…
Bill Gates: That’s right. But remember the synergistic effects that the combination of the cable nets brought. And now try to extend that to these new areas.
Dirk de Pol: Why don’t you do that for us?
Bill Gates: (smiling): Now from me you’re not going to hear any eulogy for the state and the loss of its traditional tasks. As far as education is concerned, I’ll say this. Anyone who doesn’t learn that living is learning doesn’t have a chance. And learning is inconceivable without media. It’s our task to facilitate learning. And it’s also our task to make sure that the various national educational levels continue improving.
Dirk de Pol: That sounds like a declaration of state. What happened to business?
Bill Gates: Please! Anyone who gains knowledge and a bit of media competence in school and university is later going to use media, professionally and privately. I hardly need to explain the positive effects of knowledge and media competence on the wealth of nations. But if you like, I can explain it all from a business perspective. Today we may even own a lot of distributorships and service companies, but our central products continue to be very complex. They require educated and demanding customers, people who know better and better what they really want. Today more than ever, the technological possibilities seem to be unlimited. But you can only realize them when you have the buying power of a mass market behind you that is ready for new products. Just think of how computers got to where they are today.
Dirk de Pol: So how do biotech and pharmaceuticals fit into that?
Bill Gates: You can practically answer that for yourself when you consider the connection between the old myth of multimedia and the aura of the so-called “demigods in white.” The myth of multimedia promised us a kind of godlike omnipresence, a virtual double existence, maybe even digital immortality. From the very beginning there was a religious component in the program of “being digital.” Think about overcoming the limits of our bodies, or the heavenly game rooms of our fantasies, as we visualize them ever more concretely and powerfully. All these myths of a media revolution from above had their impact for maybe nine or ten years…
Dirk de Pol: And now you’re pushing the media revolution from below with your MS housing projects…
Bill Gates: We see ourselves as catalysts of the media revolution. Anyway, the fire of the media myths burned out rather quickly. And from its ashes rises the phoenix of biotech, which concentrates much more on the offline world, and rightly so, I might add. Biotech is going to fulfill a few of the promises of the early media myths. To that extent, media and biotech are complementary. And they are profiting from each other in many ways. Think about the inconceivable success of DNA computers and the success of Affymetrix, who are also bringing together geneticists, biotechnicians, and creative programmers. Among other things that resulted in the most efficient system of preventive recognition of inherited diseases – a fantastic step forward. Or think about the huge boom in prosthetics. Eyes, ears, even parts of your brain are now replaceable, or will be in the foreseeable future, and sometimes can even be improved… If I remember right, it was German and French media theorists who in the early nineties first came up with the view that people themselves have to also be understood as reprogrammable media. At that time they reaped a lot of criticism in the German press. I assume that has something to do with German history. In America we have a lot less reservations on our road ahead…
Dirk de Pol: This is starting to sound as though you want to push an unrestrained reprogramming of the biological human being!
Bill Gates: (laughs): Well, I’m getting a bit carried away! But seriously, I think that by now it should be pretty obvious what some of the possibilities in these areas are. At this point I should confess that Melinda is probably right in always reminding me that women tend to view these developments with more worry.
Dirk de Pol: So your wife clips your wings when your visions start getting too high off the ground?
Bill Gates: (grins): You said it! She is my most unrelenting critic. But staying on the ground is a key concept here. We could spell out the connection between media and biotech in a different fashion. Let’s say you had a choice between a customer who sticks with you until the age of sixty, or another one who might still be enthusiastic about your products at eighty. Which customer would you prefer?
Dirk de Pol: If you will allow us at this point to summarize: Not only do you want to raise and educate your customers and protect them against the blows of fate with the security of your systems and your housing projects, you also want to make sure that they enjoy all of that for as long possible, which of course also means being able to pay for it. You’ll excuse the question, but how is it that despite your immense power and responsibility you still haven’t acquired clinical delusions of grandeur?
Bill Gates: (laughs): Come on, my power is not at all great. There are simply a great many complex tasks to fulfill here. In economic terms it no longer makes any sense that these are all handled by single companies with huge bureaucracies, because these end up blocking each other in the process, instead of cooperating. The network of concerns that has formed around Microsoft represents a complex and nearly self-regulating system. It would be hubris to think that any one person could possibly control that all by himself. And besides all that, you should never underestimate the surprises that might emerge tomorrow from some innocuous laboratory or garage!
Dirk de Pol: Apparently you have once again readjusted your strategy. Already back in 1997, the word going around about Microsoft was that “they are so much nicer now.” What changed?
Bill Gates: Thanks to Melinda and my children I calmed down a bit. Our strategies are far more moderate now, and depend on networking and coordinated cooperation. Up until a few years ago people had always thought of evolution in terms of struggle and competition, and in the process they ignored that evolution itself is a complex system in which cooperation is just as important, if not even more important. To put it another way: the days of locust capitalism are done. At the same time we have to steer evolution, insofar as this is possible. Attempts to steer evolution have always been a part of its inherent functioning. For us, evolution is no longer some kind of anonymous fate.
Dirk de Pol: “L’evolution, c’est moi?”
Bill Gates: (laughs): No, no! Too much the honor!
Dirk de Pol: Okay, how about: A, the spider in the net of evolution?
Bill Gates: (sighs and rolls his eyes): This spider metaphor has been following me around for years… But okay, if you allow that the spider is a vegetarian and that it’s only helping in weaving the net of evolution, then I’ll accept that.
Dirk de Pol: Mr. Gates, we thank you for this discussion.
This fictional interview was conducted by Dirk de Pol, Berlin
© 1997 Dirk de Pol; © 1997 TELEPOLIS