My Close Encounters with Bill Gates

Bill Gates introduces Microsoft Windows

Bill's retirement brings memories of my experiences with him. 

Bill Gates got involved with microcomputer software in 1975. My first use of Microsoft software was in 1978, and my first personal brush with Bill was in 1981. During Microsoft's most influential period, the '80s and '90s, I had a variety of face-to-face Bill Gates experiences. Here are some of my Boomer Years stories.

Bill Gates, pioneer

In the 1970s I subscribed to Popular Electronics magazine, and in the January 1975 issue I read how to build your own microcomputer (so-called because they used a very small microprocessor) with a MITS Altair 8800 kit. I heard that two young guys named Paul Allen and Bill Gates wrote the Basic programming language software for it. They soon formed a company focused on microcomputer software called Microsoft, and started providing similar software to other computer makers. (Microsoft was started in Albuquerque, where MITS was located, but Gates and Allen soon moved back home to the Seattle area.)

Setting aside myths, Gates, Allen and Microsoft didn't invent microcomputers or the Basic language or anything else in particular. Their luck was getting into the microcomputer market very early -- making them pioneers -- and their skill was spotting and exploiting market needs faster and more effectively than other pioneers.

To meet market needs quickly, much of the early Microsoft-brand software was acquired from other software developers, including the original versions of MS-DOS, PowerPoint, Visual Basic and others. Microsoft also built products in-house, often using ideas created elsewhere: Microsoft Windows was notably based on work by Xerox, as was Apple Macintosh. (This is common practice; most software is "inspired" by earlier work.)

Using an effective combination of technique, treasury, talent, and timing (and perhaps less-flattering terms), Microsoft's success made it a household name, and made Bill Gates the richest person on Earth.

Desktop computing arrives

Years before IBM introduced its first "PC" (Personal Computer), several companies including Apple, Atari, Commodore and others introduced microcomputers. The term desktop computer was used to contrast with the refrigerator-to-bus-sized computers used by businesses. Tandy started selling the TRS-80 Model I desktop computer in its Radio Shack stores. In 1978, I bought an original TRS-80 "trash 80" to dive in and learn what computers are all about. When I'd turn on the computer I'd see copyright notices from Tandy, and also from Microsoft, who created the Basic language interpreter included inside.

In 1981, I moved from San Francisco to Seattle to become general manager of radio station KKFX, "The Fox". To help me run the station, I bought a business-class TRS-80 Model II computer and a variety of business software that was all programmed with Microsoft Basic. As I dived deep into customizing and integrating it for my radio station (teaching myself computer programming to do so), I'd see the name Microsoft on my screen many times each day.

Microsoft in Seattle

I'd also see the name Microsoft going to and from work. I lived in Kirkland and worked in downtown Seattle, taking SR-520 every day. Right by the freeway was a smallish office building with the name Microsoft. So, while I could contemplate that microcomputers were catching on, and Basic was a popular programming language, Microsoft was mainly a sign on a building and text on my screen. And a person's name: Bill Gates.

My first Bill encounter was actually just a brush with fate. One day in 1981, at the local Bellevue Square mall, I walked into Radio Shack. Another guy with glasses brushed by me heading out. The clerk asked if I knew who that was: "Bill Gates, the Microsoft guy. He comes in often to check what's new." Hmmm, I mused, Bill Gates is a geek, like me!

Bill Gates in San Francisco

I didn't see Bill Gates again until I'd moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area. My Seattle radio station experiences with PCs led me to jump from being a professional broadcaster to being a computer consultant -- a smart move.

In 1986, I started writing articles for computer magazines, and I was elected president of Golden Gate Computer Society (I resigned the position in 1990). Being a magazine writer and heading a computer user group put me in touch with many of the early PC hardware and software pioneers, including Osborne Computer, Borland International, Intuit, WordStar, Ashton-Tate/dBASE, Fox Software, WordPerfect, Lotus, VisiCalc, Oracle, Sybase, Powersoft, Gupta, Novell, IBM and many others.

But in those days, there wasn't much reason to talk with Microsoft because it didn't have products for the hottest PC area, business database application development.

Not that Microsoft was ignored. By the mid-1980s the success of the IBM PC, which used an operating system provided by Microsoft, led to so-called PC clones that also ran what became known as MS-DOS, so almost everyone knew the name Microsoft. Programmers often used Microsoft Basic, and some companies used Microsoft's early business software, though that market was dominated by WordPerfect, Lotus, Ashton-Tate and a few others. Microsoft was already working on something called Windows, and on a joint project with IBM called OS/2.

So, when Bill Gates came to San Francisco in 1987, two colleagues and I went to see his talk to a user group. Afterward, we were chatting outside the hotel ballroom when a side door opened and Bill stepped out. He was alone, and quickly joined our conversation -- just four of us talking tech. I was impressed with Bill's interest in our views on new technology and practices. I later learned that this was common. He loved to talk with PC users, unlike executives at the "big" computer companies of the day who seemed to avoid encountering actual customers.

Back to Seattle

I had a flurry of encounters with Bill in the early 90s. I had become editor-in-chief of DataBased Advisor Magazine in San Diego, and was invited to a briefing at Microsoft, which had recently moved from Kirkland to a new facility in nearby Redmond.

I chatted with Bill at length about how MS-DOS was evolving into something called Windows, and how this new graphical operating system would go down two paths, one for consumers created solely by Microsoft, the other for businesses created jointly with IBM. (It was a bit later that Microsoft and IBM broke up their partnership. The Microsoft business product became Windows NT, while the IBM version became OS/2. This was a turning point, because several leading software companies and products -- WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3, notably -- followed IBM's lead and focused on OS/2. Meanwhile, Microsoft quietly created competitive software -- Word, Excel -- for Windows. When the dust settled, Windows beat OS/2 in the marketplace, and therefore Microsoft Word and Excel took over the earlier products' position as ubiquitous business software.)

When our small group went to dinner in Bellevue, we split into two tables. "BillG" (his Microsoft nickname based on his email address) headed the other table, and Steve Ballmer headed mine. Steve later replaced Bill as Microsoft's CEO, but back then he was the company's head salesman. He apparently believed the best way to sell is to dominate the conversation. My strongest memory is how LOUD Steve was (and still is). It was almost impossible to talk when Steve was holding forth.

Microsoft joins the database world

In 1992 Microsoft bought Fox Software, creator of FoxPro database software. My magazine was the leading publication on using databases such as FoxPro. Microsoft was suddenly jumping into the database world, and needed to get to know the key influencers. So, with my business partner/wife Jeanne, I was back at Microsoft in Redmond, visiting with several old friends from Fox Software who had just moved from Ohio to Seattle, having lunch with Fox Software founder Dr. Dave Fulton, and getting acquainted with new Microsoft people now joining the FoxPro team. We even got a tour of the Microsoft campus that included Bill Gates' office.

It's important to note that the Microsoft's early wealth came almost entirely from MS-DOS, because it "sold" copies to PC makers who installed it on almost every computer. The profit stream from MS-DOS let Microsoft buy Fox Software and several other companies and products, including what became known as Visual Basic and PowerPoint. In fact, Microsoft bought the original MS-DOS from another company.

At one point in our tour of the Redmond campus we encountered a water-spewing fountain, and a Microsoft executive said, "We call it the DOS Fountain, from which everything else flows". (Microsoft's money fountain later evolved to Windows and Office -- there's tremendous profit in de facto monopolies.)

One evening, we went to a barbecue at Bill's house on Lake Washington. It was an average "nice" house, except for being right on the lovely lake, with a boathouse and boat ("he never has time to use it") and adjacent indoor swimming pool. We were able to wander most of the main floor, but burly guards blocked access to some rooms and the upstairs. Dinner was at picnic tables in the backyard. (This was his old house; he was just starting to build his current massive home on the opposite side of the lake.)

In the Fall of 1992, Microsoft presented its first FoxPro Developer Conference ("DevCon") in Phoenix. This was an annual event originated by Fox Software in 1989 (and later continued by my company in conjunction with Microsoft). At a pre-event DevCon speakers party I talked with Bill again; he was now slightly recognizing me in a crowd.

My personal best of the conference was as a session speaker (which I'd done at every Fox DevCon and various other conferences). This time my topic was how-to be a successful computer consultant, and it went pretty well -- attendees voted it the "best" session of the conference. My business best was to come soon after.

My stupid question

One afternoon, I was scheduled for an official talk with Bill in my role as DataBased Advisor editor-in-chief. (I had become known for writing in-depth profiles of major software companies based on interviews with their leaders.) Bill delivered a keynote speech at the Phoenix Convention Center, and as arranged I met him by the stage. We walked alone for a few blocks to the Hyatt Regency, chatting all the way.

It was a fun conversation, about the early history of microcomputers and how far we'd come in fifteen years. Bill seemed to know every key person, what they had created, what was influenced by what, and how it all fit into the tech world. I hope someday he finds the time to write his memoirs of this game-changing period. We walked and talked unnoticed, until we got to a flashing "Please Wait" intersection. A lady waiting for the light looked, then looked again, and said "Are you Bill Gates?". "Yes," he replied "I thought so." The light changed, and off we went.

Back at the hotel, I was honored to experience the legendary feisty side of Bill Gates. In a conversation that included Dr. Dave Fulton and my editorial colleague Dian Schaffhauser, we discussed various things Microsoft was doing. About half the time, Bill rocked back and forth on the edge of the couch, perhaps anxious to get us out of his suite.

Then I asked an explosive question: "Borland International gets a lot of mileage out of object orientation. Is it just a term or is there something real about it?" Bill's response was rather strong, declaring I'd asked a "stupid" question. He attacked Borland, saying, "We don't abuse the terminology like they do." Then he attacked us, threatening "If the press isn't more intelligent about these claims, they may force us down to their level in terms of pasting that word onto everything we say."

I knew that Borland, Computer Associates and other software companies were spending lots of time and money adding object architecture to their products, so there must be a reason. I also knew that Microsoft hadn't said anything about providing the same technology to software developers. So I probed deeper: "Isn't there something about objects internally as a way to extend apps without having to retest everything?" Bill's response was interesting: "You've got to understand, it's a new word for an old technique... We use subroutines in our programs."

Feeling this statement was simplistic and side-stepping the real question, I noted, "Borland says they're taking this time to rebuild their architecture because they'll be way ahead of the game." Fulton tossed in, "The technical term for it is an excuse." Gates proclaimed, "Only features end users see are of benefit, okay?" That was an odd statement to make at a conference focused on software developers and administrators, but I dropped the subject and Bill calmed down. (The conversation then wandered into internal use of objects in Microsoft Word, FoxPro and Visual Basic, and why Microsoft didn't provide object-oriented programming in them.)

Excerpts of the interview were published in DataBased Advisor in February 1993, but we didn't mention the emotional aspect of Bill's response. The Gates/Fulton interview was accompanied by a rebuttal by Borland International CEO Philippe Kahn, who gave no ground. "We hope that in the next few years we can convince Microsoft of the benefits of object computing, and that they'll help advance the industry and its customers to the next level."

Object-based software architecture and programming did turn out to be important, and eventually became a prominent feature of Microsoft products. I think Bill knew we asked a legitimate question, and launched into attack mode to scare us off the topic. He needed to downplay other companies' new technology until Microsoft could catch up. Generating FUD about a topic -- Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt -- is a classic competitive weapon, and no company has used FUD better over the years than Microsoft.

I later heard that at Microsoft it was considered an honor to say something that Bill Gates called "stupid"... or at least, not uncommon.

Introducing Microsoft Access

FoxPro wasn't Microsoft's only database product. It was jointly developing and marketing SQL Server with Ashton-Tate and original creator Sybase, and it was developing a new database system named Microsoft Access.

In early November 1992, Microsoft asked me, as editor-in-chief of the leading database magazine, to record some comments about Access. I did this secretly in a New York hotel room while I was attending Computer Associates first developer conference on Clipper, the object-oriented database product it recently purchased from Nantucket.

Later in November, at the massive Comdex computer exposition and conference, Bill Gates introduced Microsoft Access to the world, in-person from a staqe in the Las Vegas Convention Center, and live by satellite to a world-wide audience. During the "launch" speech, Bill introduced videos of people talking about Microsoft Access, including the comments I had recorded earlier. Bill also introduced the new magazine about the product, Access Advisor, which my company was launching in conjunction with Microsoft.

The legend of Bill Gates

Over the years I've heard many amazing stories about Bill Gates, mostly from early Microsoft people who worked and traveled with him. There are many comical tales of Bill's adventures with forgotten shoes, crazy driving, blankets over his head during airplane rides, and more. I take these as evidence that his relentless focus on Microsoft was at times his only focus. While undoubtedly true, coming from me the stories would be second-hand, so I won't repeat details I might get wrong.

But my stories, I saw for myself. At a computer industry lunch in Seattle, Bill was right next to us, at the next table. My wife had the best vantage point, and eventually whispered, "there's a hole in his sock." I whispered back, "You don't really want to see my socks either." We geeks have to stick together.

Michael Callan
John, I enjoyed your article. Please keep it up. Michael Callan
I agree with Mike C.