Gates: Software tycoon to ambassador?

Is Bill Gates preparing to switch careers, from software architect to ambassador?

It began to look that way during the Microsoft chairman and chief software architect's trip to Paris in mid-November, where his schedule bore more resemblance to that of a visiting diplomat than of a software tycoon.

Gates met the French head of state, President Jacques Chirac, with whom he discussed the digital divide, the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other development issues, according to presidential aides.

At a meeting with the director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), Koichiro Matsuura, at its Paris headquarters, Gates signed a deal committing Microsoft to work with Unesco on projects to improve IT education in the developing world.

Over lunch, he held a press conference with Bernard Charles, the president and chief executive officer of Dassault Systemes, to discuss how the two companies will work together to develop 3-D design tools. You may not have heard of Dassault Systemes, the Paris-based software development subsidiary of French military and civil aircraft manufacturer Groupe Dassault, but you probably know one of its biggest customers, The Boeing Co.

Gates also spoke to civil servants about public IT infrastructure, and addressed a society of student entrepreneurs at one of the country's top engineering schools, advising them to let their choice of project be guided by passion, not profit.

A trip to Paris city hall did not fit Gates' schedule. "There was no time," said an aide.

That's a shame, because the city of Paris, until now a faithful Microsoft customer, is wavering. It recently commissioned a study of how much it would cost to switch its 17,000 desktop computers to open-source software instead.

The company conducting the Paris study had previously carried out similar work for the city authority in Munich. Last year, when Munich was debating whether to switch, Gates' sidekick Steve Ballmer flew all the way to Germany to persuade the city to stick with Microsoft.

Reporters in Paris wanted to know whether Gates saw a role for Microsoft in U.S.-international relations? Gates quickly dismissed this notion, saying that diplomacy was not the role of a commercial organization.

Perhaps that's for the best, because Ballmer's "diplomatic" mission to Germany was ultimately unsuccessful: this September, Munich chose Linux. And in Paris, the debate is still going on.

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