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Bill Gates: The Emperor Strikes Back

On the eve of a new millennium, Gates talks about the future of Microsoft, the convergence of technology and entertainment–and his favorite ‘Star Trek’ captain

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Like E-Elvis leaving the building, Bill Gates swiftly moves past a backstage throng of awestruck digit-heads. One balding, middle-aged hopeful gathers up the courage to break from the pack and nervously hand him a glossy folder — a business proposal? a resume? a subpoena? — before the world’s wealthiest man is ushered into a nearby meeting room. It’s Dec. 7, and, unbowed by a federal judge’s finding that Microsoft has monopoly power in the computer industry, Gates has just unveiled the possible future of entertainment: In an hour-long speech at the Streaming Media West ’99 conference here in San Jose, Calif., he has laid out his company’s plans to dominate not just your PC but your house. The key announcements: Microsoft’s creation of a secure network for delivering entertainment on demand via Internet-connected set-top boxes, and a guide to content for high-speed users that will offer full-length movies, TV shows, and thousands of music videos. As Gates presents it, Windows software will unchain computing from the desktop and turn a slew of devices — like portable music players and cell phones — into mini-PCs.

Yet in spite of his Olympian celebrity, Gates still, and somewhat endearingly, exudes geekitude. He seems at pains to present himself as just another small businessman: ”Providing tools to everybody, the business we’re in, it’s not such a bad business,” he says, sounding for all the world like an Orville Redenbacher popcorn ad. It’s almost easy to forget that this is a guy who lives in a $50 million-plus superhome with flat-panel wall screens that cycle through millions of images owned by one of his many companies.

When Gates, 44, began building software 25 years ago, those digital photos, and the mere idea of watching video on a computer, seemed impractical at best. Now he envisions Microsoft software as the underlying juice that makes 21st-century entertainment — video editing, interactive television, digital music, and even smart car radios — possible. And no matter what the government says or plans, Gates has the bucks and the infrastructure to make it happen. We quizzed him on his vision of the future.

EW: Where will the entertainment of the early 21st century come from?

BG: It will be quite a mix of start-ups and traditional players. You don’t have to own a TV network to go out and do a cool show. People use The Blair Witch Project as a sort of prototypical example. Every year there will be a couple of fantastic examples like that, of some new approach where somebody, with at most $100,000 of capital, went out and did something that millions of people fell in love with.

EW: Where does the PC fit in?

BG: In the past if you wanted to edit a video, or do special effects, that was like, oh my God, get out the $5 million budget. All those kinds of neat special-effects-type things will become standard features of PCs over the next five years. Our whole thing has been to take technology and not have it be a barrier. So anybody who has got the creativity doesn’t have to learn the bits and bytes.