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JANUARY 13, 1997 VOL. 149 NO. 2 7 of 12


Gates met Melinda French 10 years ago at a Microsoft press event in Manhattan. She was working for the company and later became one of the executives in charge of interactive content. Their daughter Jennifer was born last April. Melinda, 32, is no longer at Microsoft, and she is active in charity work and on the board of Duke, where she studied computer science as an undergraduate and then got a graduate degree in business. Like Gates, she is smart and independent. Like his mother, she is also friendly and social, with an easy manner of organizing trips and activities. But she zealously guards her privacy and doesn't give interviews.

"I used to think I wouldn't be all that interested in the baby until she was two or so and could talk," says Gates as he shows off the more intimate family quarters. "But I'm totally into it now. She's just started to say 'ba-ba' and have a personality."

Melinda is Catholic, goes to church and wants to raise Jennifer that way. "But she offered me a deal," Gates says. "If I start going to church--my family was Congregationalist--then Jennifer could be raised in whatever religion I choose." Gates admits that he is tempted, because he would prefer she have a religion that "has less theology and all" than Catholicism, but he has not yet taken up the offer. "Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient," he explains. "There's a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning."

If Ballmer is Gates' social goad, his intellectual one is Nathan Myhrvold (pronounced Meer-voll), 37, who likes to joke that he's got more degrees than a thermometer, including a doctorate in physics from Princeton. With a fast and exuberant laugh, he has a passion for subjects ranging from technology (he heads Microsoft's advanced-research group) to dinosaurs (he's about to publish a paper on the aerodynamics of the apatosaurus tail) to cooking. He sometimes moonlights as a chef at Rover's, a French restaurant in Seattle.

When he arrives there for dinner, owner Thierry Rautureau comes out to hug him and pour champagne. There follows a procession of a dozen courses, from black truffles and pureed celery root in smoked game consomme to venison with obscure types of mushrooms, each with different vintage wines. (The bill for two comes to $390, and picking it up assuages my discomfort that Gates had insisted on putting the previous evening's $37 tab at the Indian restaurant on his MasterCard.)

"There are two types of tech companies," Myhrvold says in between pauses to inhale the aroma of the food. "Those where the guy in charge knows how to surf, and those where he depends on experts on the beach to guide him." The key point about Gates is that he knows--indeed loves--the intricacies of creating software. "Every decision he makes is based on his knowledge of the merits. He doesn't need to rely on personal politics. It sets the tone."

Myhrvold describes a typical private session with Gates. Pacing around a room, they will talk for hours about future technologies such as voice recognition (they call their team working on it the "wreck a nice beach" group, because that's what invariably appears on the screen when someone speaks the phrase "recognize speech" into the system), then wander onto topics ranging from quantum physics to genetic engineering. "Bill is not threatened by smart people," he says, "only stupid ones."

Microsoft has long hired based on I.Q. and "intellectual bandwidth." Gates is the undisputed ideal: talking to most people is like sipping from a fountain, goes the saying at the company, but with Gates it's like drinking from a fire hose. Gates, Ballmer and Myhrvold believe it's better to get a brilliant but untrained young brain--they're called "Bill clones"--than someone with too much experience. The interview process tests not what the applicants know but how well they can process tricky questions: If you wanted to figure out how many times on average you would have to flip the pages of the Manhattan phone book to find a specific name, how would you approach the problem?

Gates' intellect is marked by an ability, as he puts it, to "drill down." On a visit to Time Inc.'s new-media facility, he answered questions from a collection of magazine editors as if by rote, but on his way out he asked to see the Internet servers and spent 45 minutes grilling the claque of awed techies there. Broad discussions bore him, he shows little curiosity about other people, and he becomes disengaged when people use small talk to try to establish a personal rapport. Even after spending a lot of time with him, you get the feeling that he knows much about your thinking but nothing about such things as where you live or if you have a family. Or that he cares.

In that regard he is the opposite of, say, Bill Clinton, who brackets the other end of the baby boom: Gates analytically rigorous and emotionally reserved, the President equally smart but intellectually undisciplined and readily intimate. They played golf on Martha's Vineyard once, and the President, as usual, worked hard at bonding emotionally and being personally charming and intimate. He expressed sorrow about the death of Gates' mother, shared the pain of the recent death of his own mother and gave golfing tips to Melinda. But Gates noticed that Clinton never bore in or showed rigorous curiosity about technological issues. Though he vaguely considers himself a Democrat, Gates stayed neutral in the presidential election.

Warren Buffett, the Omaha, Nebraska, investor whom Gates demoted to being merely the second richest American, seems an unlikely person to be among his closest pals. A jovial, outgoing 66-year-old grandfather, Buffett only recently learned to use a computer. But as multibillionaires go, both are unpretentious, and they enjoy taking vacations together. Buffett's secretary apologetically explains that Buffett isn't giving interviews these days and at the moment is traveling, but she promises to pass along the request. Less than three hours later, Buffett calls to say he happens to be in the Time & Life Building with some free time between meetings in Manhattan, and he would be happy to come by to be interviewed. He likes to talk about Gates.

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