A Night With Bill Gates' New Big Hairy Vision

Bill Gates wrinkled his nose at me. "You just squished your question."

Aw shit, I just annoyed Bill Gates.

I asked about collaborative tech projects between the Gates Foundation and Microsoft. You could see the question practically crawl up his spine and spill out of his eyes as laser beams of frustration fueled by my stupidity. I knew should have asked him about his prison record again—after all, it's a cocktail reception and small talk about his tough youth might've been a better icebreaker. His answer is a bit rambly, with several little examples such as micropayments on phones, PC setups donated to libraries and other tech. Then he turns to say he is going, awkwardly, forcefully, but I stop him to say one last thing: "Thank you for what you've done in computing for all of us." You know in about a week he's retiring from his full time work at Microsoft.

Gates appears on stage in front of many-hued lights with Steve Ballmer, both sitting across from Mossberg and Swisher in bright red leather chairs. It is the first liveblog of All Things D. I warm up my fingers and kick the beer well under my chair, so it would not get in the way. I try to capture the meaning of his words in real time, a familiar feeling washes over me of helplessness. After dozens of liveblogs, I am struggling to comprehend the ramblings of one of the most interesting, richest, smartest people in the world. The last time this happened was a year ago, trying to liveblog Gates with Steve Jobs.

Gates is jovial, carefree, but also speaks in super random clusters of phrases. The phrases are more like strings of bullet points. Yes, bullet pointed tech jargon interjected with business jargon from Ballmer. My mind searches for facts or clear concepts. I could not grasp any. And I realize that it's not me, it's Gates.

All through the hour, Mossberg attempted to gets them to face Vista. They talk about 290m units of Vista sold, dodging questions. But no one can get them to say that Vista is an incredible operating system that people love. They talk scale and business, and draw charts on white boards of data flywheels surrounded by the words advertising and publishers, but Bill and Steve could not talk about the product itself. It's a dead horse, this Vista thing, I know. I use it to illustrate the priorities of the heads of the company—tackling big-scale markets, whether that's desktop software, or email, or advertising or search—but not so much the intricacies or polish of those actual products. Why ignore that? Tim O'Reilly asks the even bigger question: What the hell are you doing?

He actually said this, more or less this: "You had this Big Hairy Vision for Microsoft: To put a PC on every desktop. You did that. What's your Big Hairy Vision now?"

Now compared to my question, this is a very good one, even if Microsoft PR probably hated it. You have the company depending on Windows OEM and Office sales, which do well by the scale and brilliance of the business model. But that is undoubtedly part of a vision they've already accomplished. What's the next big thing? Gates should have answered this succinctly. But he didn't.

Here, as the man's giant brain grasped at the problem in front of an audience, the response is as fragmented as any:

"We've codified the goals into things we call Quests. What is the home going to look like in the next decade? How will you be able to write 1/10th the amount of code that you do today? Why will the IT staffs have no people in them at all? What will information workers' desks look like? How will they communicate? And we write down those goals and we have offsites to discuss them and how they change. Take interactive TV..."

What is he talking about and what are Microsoft quests? Mary Jo Foley writes about them in her new book, stating that the company has 70 of these visions. The way Bill states them here, they seem more like questions than quests. Saving the Princess is a quest. Defeating terrorism, that's a big quest. And putting a PC on every desktop, that is more than a quest, that's a vision. But here, with Microsoft's most senior decision-makers on stage, it's very clear they don't have an answer. Not a good one they can spin at least. That's Ballmer's problem now.

The only comparative thread I can see between the PC vision and what they're doing in advertising is that they can compete in the biggest, most profitable markets they can find using their software expertise. Not quite as romantic as putting a PC on every desk, is it?

The liveblog ends and I fold my laptop into my bag and take a breath. I am looking forward to dinner.

Out of a dozen tables, I drop my bag down at an empty one next to the desserts. I come back after getting a plate of Louisiana steamed shrimp and find Craig Mundie and Bill Gates sitting across from me, and Ester Dyson sitting next to me. I am very very uncomfortable being around all this money, all this brainpower.

Gates is going on about ads as if he is sermonizing himself in monotone, with his eyes rolling all over the place, maybe searching the night sky for some random pattern. It is maddening. He's not listening to anyone and he's talking about data mining and learning how to target ads in shifting profiles and Ester Dyson is trying to talk to him about reaching consumers in a more effective context, but she's being drown out a bit by the noise. I just want to say, hey, you can get rich doing this, but no one I know has clicked on a fucking ad in years while rushing through a website. No one I think is smart, that is.

At this point, I'd been listening to Gates' style of speaking for over 3 hours and I can't parse it. I am not numeric. I am not super-random. I am not more logical than I am emotional. I am not roboto and I do not compute search, advertising or finance. Our minds are totally out of sync, and though you'd figure hey, it's Bill, so I should listen, I instead get up and go for a walk. No one looks away from Bill as I slink away from the table, the least significant being in the immediate dining area.

I eat with a friend I bump into, and when I come back there's a crowd. Bill Gates is there, and Dean Kamen is there, and Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft CTO, who looks like a viking version of John Hodgman. Esther is still there and so is Tim O'Reilly. Nathan is leading the talk about curing cancer by filtering the blood and random people from the crowd are shouting out guesses to his questions.

Suddenly, I notice a change in Bill. He is listening. He is speaking clearly. He's focused, he's engaged and nodding and leaning into the conversation. Dean Kamen suggests trying a filter he's worked with before and a fresh treatment idea is born in front of our eyes. Gates nods. He's looking at Nathan, into his eyes, and switching back to Dean and looking into his eyes and he's 100% there. He hardly speaks but when he does, out come clear facts and arguments. Gates is making sense and is alive and happy—finally he gets to talk about his new vision. Forget advertising. He's undoubtedly thinking of the way revolutionary cancer cures can be applied in developed nations and in the less fortunate other half of the world's population, too. And he's excited for it.

After all, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's goal-their vision-is to "Treat All Human Life Equally."

It is at this moment I realize then that Bill already has his new, Big Hairy Vision. It's Microsoft that still needs a new one.

[Bill Gates' Retirement Party on Giz]

Special thanks to Tim O'Reilly for asking that question