Bill Gates: the mighty morphin' marketing machine

He was everywhere this week, promoting a product called Microsoft Surface. Who assumes the pitchman role when he leaves the company?
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Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, together again for the first time; and Microsoft Surface. (, Microsoft)

He was everywhere this week, promoting a product called Microsoft Surface. Who assumes the pitchman role when he leaves the company?

Bill Gates has become such an enormous presence in our local culture that he's now a sort of Mount Rainier, felt even on cloudy days. At those moments when the corporate clouds part, his visage looms large and we, in awe, take in the splendor of his brains, his influence on business, education, and healthcare, and his beneficence as a philanthropist. We got another sighting Wednesday night, May 30, when Gates sat down with his longtime rival, Apple's Steve Jobs, at the D: All Things Digital conference, their first joint public appearance in decades. The event in Carlsbad, Calif., had a weird quality. Both men dressed as they did back in 1984, when they appeared in photographs promoting the new Apple Macintosh. Jobs then and now does the black turtleneck, jeans, and wire-rim glasses. Gates has changed glasses but still goes for paunchy slacks and an open-collared shirt. The much-anticipated pairing produced no sparks or really anything memorable, save for Jobs' quotation of a Beatles song to sum up his feelings about their relationship. But it did serve as a reminder of how the two have pursued different paths in one important respect. Jobs, who's bounced back from several business setbacks, remains a daily presence at Apple, while Gates has been transforming himself into something bigger than Microsoft, increasingly set apart from the company he co-founded. Though Gates remains Microsoft chairman, the company is run by CEO Steve Ballmer. Gates as philanthropist is moving to a global superstar tier occupied by Nelson Mandela, Mohammed Ali, and only a few others who could draw a crowd by walking through a street in New Dehli, New York, or Tokyo. (We're excepting Brad and Angelina, who occupy a parallel universe and who might be in town to pick up a new child.) Gates wants to step away from Microsoft, but the company clearly still regards him as its best pitchman. Though Ballmer can rock a house, Gates plays a role of acclaimed software oracle whose heft smothers skepticism. Didn't Gates beat IBM, Netscape, Borland, and Apple? Doesn't this guy see the future? Inside Microsoft, there are plenty of smart engineers, especially software guru Ray Ozzie, but nothing like Gates, the franchise player. Microsoft brought him out again this week to promote Microsoft Surface, a table-top computer with a touch screen. For nearly 24 hours, Gates was seen everywhere promoting Surface. On NBC, for example, you got Gates on the Today show, all day on MSNBC cable, and then at 6 p.m. on Nightly News. With Gates doing the demo, his celebrity trumped other issues, such as what's truly new about this concept? Writers such as David Pogue of The New York Times later pointed out that comparable touch-screen technology exists elsewhere – see Apple's forthcoming iPhone. But there was none of that on Today, just a few gentle questions about how Gates tips at restaurants. "I try to meet expectations," he said, a sly smile on his lips. Gates played no such role earlier this month when Microsoft announced the biggest acquisition in its history, the $6 billion purchase of Seattle-based aQuantive, an online advertising agency. Even Gates could not have sold this purchase as Microsoft innovation. Quite the contrary, Microsoft bought aQuantive because it was failing to beat Google, the growing power in online search. Google in April had won the bidding war for DoubleClick, another online ad agency, for which it will pay $3.1 billion. In recent years, Google's rise and Microsoft's sluggish stock price triggered a flurry of news accounts suggesting that Microsoft had lost its mojo. In my view, those stories vastly underestimated Microsoft's broad strategic strengths and lessons it learned by defeating upstarts. Maybe I'm wrong. But unquestionably, Microsoft is losing the one employee who could tell us that keyboards would go away and spam would be defeated, and we would not only believe him, but years later keep believing when he told us about the next new thing, like Microsoft Surface. So if there's a wistfulness about Gates' fading role in computing, he wasn't telling Jobs. But with Gates out of Microsoft, the company will lose something, not power or wealth, but a star power that's been fun. Gates never lost to Jobs in the software wars, but Jobs will be the last man standing.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.