Adaptable Microsoft chief speaks listeners’ language

(Return with us now to those glorious days of yesteryear, when Bill Gates had to define the word “multimedia” for his audience and seemed to have designs on only half the world.  I followed him around town for two days in April, 1992, and filed this report.)

By Owen Youngman, associate managing editor/financial news

Bill Gates, chairman and chief executive of Microsoft Corp., is in Chicago this week touting the versatility of his company’s newest microcomputer system software. Just as much on display, though, has been his own adaptability. 

Monday, introducing a new version of Microsoft’s Windows at McCormick Place, he was the programmer as rock star, accepting the adulation of thousands of computer users and talking their generation’s language: technojargon. They sat in rapt attention in the darkened Arie Crown Theatre for what amounted to a program-length commercial for Windows 3.1, bursting into applause on the appearance of a directory screen from the Windows file manager. 

Tuesday, speaking to the Executives’ Club of Chicago at the Palmer House Hilton, he was the entrepreneur as capitalist icon, addressing admiring fellow CEOs and would-be CEOs in their own language: English. They sat in rapt attention in the hotel’s Grand Ballroom for a discussion of how technology is changing the world, bursting into applause when a computer pronounced the name “Charlemagne.” 

This is a man who knows his audiences. 

The knowing chuckles from Tuesday`s crowd came not after IBM jokes, but when Gates shared his secret for beating one of his long-ago worries about taking Microsoft public-that keeping the investment community informed would eat up too much of his time. 

“If you meet your projections,” he said, “you can ignore the analysts.” 

Gates did spend some time talking about his “crusade” to get other computer companies to write programs that would run on top of Windows, and said in an interview after his speech that perhaps half the computers in the IBM-compatible world might wind up using the system. But he intentionally avoided both technobabble and the hard sell to pitch his vision of a computerized future. 

Instead he talked of a not-too-distant time when small personal computers would replace executives’ wallets, containing not only the information needed to make purchases, but “thousands of pictures of your kids and the information you need for entry into your house or car.”

He held forth on one of his favorite topics, “information at your fingertips.” This idea for making computerized data readily accessible includes technology that today lets computers be controlled with pens and tomorrow will expand that control to the human voice. 

And he demonstrated two software products that he said showed the progress in one of his areas of intense interest, education. Both were interactive, multimedia programs stored on compact disks. (He did use the buzzword “multimedia,” defining it as software that includes audio and video as well as text, but he apologized for doing so.) 

One package, Microsoft Bookshelf, is a collection of seven reference books – an encyclopedia, dictionary, atlas and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations among them – that is readily searchable and includes not only pronunciations of 66,000 words, but a recording of part of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address and a snatch of Handel’s “Water Music.” 

The other is a program from Broderbund Software called Living Books, an elementary-level reading primer that allows a user not only to hear words read and repeated, but to play around in its screen displays to find hidden bells, whistles and other amusements. 

Later, in answer to a question about what the technology world might be like in 25 years, he had to pause; after all, 25 years ago the personal computer had yet to be invented. 

“Why, I’ll be 50 years old then. No, wait,” he said, recalcuating, “I’ll be 60.”

Not that it matters. Either way, Bill Gates would figure to be comfortable in whatever world arrives.

About Owen Youngman

Professor Emeritus of Journalism and formerly Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Formerly senior vice president/strategy and development and director of interactive media, Chicago Tribune.