Window on Bill Gates Virtual man: He's a cyber-superstar who attracts curious hordes on-line and off. But in person he seems a virtual enigma.

November 30, 1995|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN STAFF

You can e-mail him, visit his home page on the World Wide Web, even dis him on any number of Usenet news groups with titles like alt.destroy.microsoft. You can read his book, run the accompanying CD-ROM, or even -- if you're one of those primitives on the lowest end of the technological food chain -- just turn on the TV set and glimpse him on "Letterman" and "Nightline" and Lehrer-sans-MacNeil.

But you can't actually talk to him F2F.

Oh, he'll talk to you, if you sit, quietly, in a room with hundreds of other people and listen. But Bill Gates' own stretch of the information highway is mostly one-way.

"He wants to stop the applause," the host of Mr. Gates' lecture at Georgetown University told the clapping audience on Tuesday, "so he can do some interaction."

Mr. Gates has been interacting more with the real world lately, mainly to promote his latest venture, "The Road Ahead." It's a book, it's a CD-ROM that plays on both your computer and CD player, it's $29.95, it's 1.5 million copies, it's Bill Gates further tightening his grip on the world of information.

While other new authors like Colin Powell will appear in suburban bookstore after suburban bookstore to connect however briefly with the individuals who make their books best sellers, the richest man in America comes out of his cybershell a bit differently. He lectures (for up to $60 a ticket), appears on the big TV shows and covers of major magazines and then, poof, he's gone again.

On Tuesday, he went to Washington -- for something other than another antitrust battle with the Department of Justice: three lectures, several interviews, and a satellite broadcast that beamed him across the Atlantic.

There is something undeniably alluring about seeing him in the flesh, this figure who so dominates cyberspace. As founder, CEO and human face of the ubiquitous, omnipotent Microsoft Corp., he has come to represent all that is intriguing and baffling and wondrous and overblown and addictive and maddening about computers.

Untold amounts of paper and on-line time have been spent endlessly dissecting him -- he is both the object of cultish devotion and the predictable backlash that any 800-pound gorilla can expect to draw. He's been the subject of both conspiracy theories that he wants to rule the world, and New Yorker cartoons. (Last week's had a man telling his wife he couldn't talk to her on the phone just now because he was negotiating "with Bill Gates on the electronic rights to you and the kids.")

Which is what drove hundreds of people to snatch up the limited tickets for his three speeches -- 700 joined him at Georgetown in the morning; 500 at the National Press Club for lunch; another 700 at the Department of the Interior, where the evening speech was shifted after the Smithsonian was swamped with more requests than a smaller auditorium could accommodate.

"People want to see and hear Bill Gates in person," the Rev. Leo J. O'Donovan, president of Georgetown University, said to the audience that crowded into the Jesuit school's darkly gothic Gaston Hall to do just that. Among them were 200 students who won an on-line raffle for seats in the balcony, closer to God if farther from Bill. "It's possible to talk to Bill Gates via computer . . . but the members of the audience want to see the man himself in the flesh.

PD "No virtual reality," he concluded, "can replace human reality."

Followers of Bill

Throughout the day, the devoted and the curious flocked to his appearances, some with books that they wanted signed (he didn't, except for a couple slipped to him during lunch). "I brought this," said Paul Joyner of Silver Spring, pulling a Windows 95 CD-ROM out of his pocket. Who knew you could write on those things? (Just the on top, Mr. Joyner said; the data are on the bottom.)

There is something vaporous about Bill Gates in person. That's not to say he's vacuous, of course, and, in fact, when he walks in a room, the collective bell curve hiccups and you feel yourself nudged further into the bulge of the relentlessly average. But for someone who is such a large presence in cyberculture, he

seems somehow smaller than life in the corporal world.

He's pale, of course; his eyes are shrouded by oversized glasses that bounce back the light and he wears a baggy gray suit. In front of a large group of strangers, he is something of a blank screen. He has none of the camera-loving, spotlight-grabbing, attention-demanding quality of the various starlets and pundits and talk-talk-talkers who have bloated the celebrity world beyond any semblance of exclusivity.

Icon Gates

But he gets the rock star treatment -- audiences suddenly shift as one when he's on stage, discernably putting on their listening caps. Flashbulbs pop like noisy fireflies. And when he wades through the crowd, corporate Microsoft types, hard blond women and interchangeable drone-ish men, march protectively around him.

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