What job do you give the man who has everything? Some might choose to become a private sector astronaut, a professional philanthropist or a Computerworld journalist. Bill Gates instead decided to give himself the job of chief software architect at Microsoft Corp.
At a press conference in Sydney last week Gates showed why that's the job for him. He's fiercely proud of Microsoft's record, proclaiming at one point that his company is "the world's best software factory".
Criticisms of Microsoft's security record and unfavourable comparisons with competing companies get short shrift: Gates is quick to stack up security efforts against open source systems and reckons Microsoft's main competition is pirates trading in Microsoft software.
"It's pretty simple what we are," he says. "We're the company that believes in software, and we believe that by hiring the best software people, having the best tools, the best ways of getting feedback from customers, that we can drive software to new heights."
When Gates sits in the room it's tempting to count his income under your breath. "One million ... two million ... three million ..." However, he's comfortable and open with his audience and eases proceedings with a dry wit. Asked whether Microsoft has a credibility problem, he recalls the dot-com years when his company was suddenly treated as irrelevant.
"During the late 90s, people thought the start-ups knew everything. And we were out of fashion because we'd say, hey, we have a five-year programme to do visual recognition. And people would say, 'Five years? Nothing takes five years; you know, I started a company yesterday, I'm a billionaire already. Jeez, who needs you guys?' And so, the long patient approach against tough problems was just not in vogue at all."
The dot-com tycoons were eventually overcome by their own hype, but Gates reckons their vision will still be delivered by Microsoft. "In fact, many of the [dot-com] dreams were right.
"The idea of e-commerce, that was right, but it required web services to be put in place and deep security to be put in place," he says. "Web services, those dreams of the 90s, over the next five years they will really come in and do those things."
Asked about competition with open source software, Gates says he has "no doubt" that commercial software provides better value. Companies that deploy open source are useful as examples, he says, but won't enjoy being "their own system integrator".
"Open source software has been around for over 10 years now and I remember there was a free spreadsheet and people said, 'What are you going to do about a free spreadsheet?' I can't even remember the name of it now. Can you?"
(Cooney visited Sydney as a guest of Microsoft NZ)