Q&A: Gates' role as innovator, deal-maker, philanthropist

Microsoft co-founder says PC industry has had greatest impact in the past 30 years

Microsoft co-founder and Chairman Bill Gates has been giving keynote speeches at Las Vegas conventions, including the Consumer Electronics Show and the now-defunct Comdex, for decades. Before his last CES keynote speech as a full-time company employee, he talked with the IDG News Service about his legacy as an innovator, the background behind some of the deals announced at CES this week and directions for Microsoft.

We've been tracking your career for some 30 years. One bone of contention has been when people have said that Bill Gates is a business mastermind but not really an innovator. Can you point out a couple of innovative things you're particularly proud of?

In terms of what we're proud of, I think it's the personal computer. It was a crazy idea at the time, that we could take the microprocessor and create a software industry around it. There was no software industry. Computing was about big businesses, and what we did in 1975, with me dropping out of school, was to say that we could build an industry that was about empowering people. We could seek out partners to build the hardware. We'd let anyone write software for the work we did, and everything we've done, over these 30 years, has been about that vision of personal computing. We were the first ones with that vision.

And now we're tackling the new frontiers. We're bringing TV, we're bringing new educational experiences, health experiences, onto this device that empowers people in a new rich way. And so it's pretty broad, the PC industry and our innovations in it; I don't think there's anything in the last 30 years that has had as much impact.

In the consumer space, since we're at CES, can you point out some recent innovations Microsoft can leverage in the next couple of years?

Well, the dollars spent on games and Xbox in the U.S. is greater than Sony PS3 and Nintendo Wii combined. Really, that's because of the innovation in Xbox Live -- connecting people up, letting players find each other, matching them, getting video online. It's a real breakthrough way of thinking about even the future of TV.

We've got a million people using our Mediaroom, which is TV delivered over the Internet. Companies like AT&T and 19 other phone companies around the world bet their future on this being the new video platform. And what that means is when you think about news, and you go and use Mediaroom news, you see the things that you care about, the ads are targeted at you.

Look at what we've done with Surface, directly touching and manipulating things -- that's gonna be a centerpiece.

I can go on and on, there's so much that has to do with making it natural, bringing these things together and integrating them. We're the company that's doing the walk -- a lot of business focus but enough consumer focus that from the biggest game phenomenon in the world to the biggest instant messaging thing, we have a lot of success that represents the innovation we're put into it.

With increasing competition from abroad, innovation is of increasing importance to U.S. companies. What's your thinking around the link between innovation and intellectual property?

Well, we're a company that's based in the United States, but obviously we're drawing on engineering talent from all over the world. We've got an unbelievable research group in China, we've got an unbelievable research group in India, and we're delivering to consumers all over the world as well. And we file for intellectual property in all of these countries. They're all in different stages in terms of copyright, or patents, and it tends to be a pretty complicated area.

Other countries look at what's going on in the United States and they say they'd like their engineers to have those same opportunities, those same incentive systems, and so there really is a sense of progress in that. It's just one of the elements that make sure people are willing to take risks and keep the innovation in this industry the fastest of any industry in the world.

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Marc Ferranti

IDG News Service

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