Reporter's Notebook: Gates' Rock Fantasy

If I ever have the chance to talk to Bill Gates, I'll ask the Microsoft chairman and chief software architect about his rock-and-roll fantasy, which was on obvious display here Sunday night when he took the stage at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, set up in the same configuration as the last time Bruce Springsteen played the venue. I bet that Gates plays some mean air guitar.

Las Vegas was the scene a couple of years ago of the infamous photograph of Gates dancing on stage with abandon at a local club with a female friend, so there might be something about the Neon City that brings out his latent rock dreams.

Admission to the Gates keynote this year, and to the others this week at Comdex, was by ticket only, and a long line queued up more than an hour before the doors opened even though everyone in the line presumably had a free ticket. Some jokers in the line hollered out, "Tickets! Anybody need tickets!" the way "scalpers" do as they hawk tickets outside of sold-out sports and music events.

The keynote was in its own way that kind of spectacle. Driving music blending rock and techno filled the 12,500-seat arena as geeks and geekettes filed in. Fast-paced customer testimonials were played on the big screens suspended above the stage interspersed with what appeared to be a demonstration of the next version of Windows Media Player, featuring a snowman that danced to the beat of the music and a funky, neo-'60s tie-dye design that pulsed across the screen.

About 15 minutes before Gates was introduced, Microsoft President and Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer appeared amid the throng of photographers, reporters, and Friends of Bill who were gathered in front of the stage. The photographers were in place to shoot flash photographs of Gates in the allotted 60-second stretch as the speech began. Many of them clustered around Ballmer as he made his way through the crowd, shaking hands, patting backs and posing for photos. Ballmer, dressed in shirt sleeves, and smiling broadly, was easy to spot (he's a big guy, after all) and so various reporters in the crowd hurried to join the crush to get close to him and maybe toss a question his way.

Then, it was time for the main event and Gates took the stage. He was dressed in casual business clothes -- his clothing became one of the jokes of the evening. He opened with a couple of quips about the U.S. presidential election and then offered his State of the Union, er, Industry address, settling into his role as Elder Industry Statesman. He cast his comments in the light of his role as chief software architect -- just another programmer, albeit a rich and famous programmer.

When he and Ballmer give keynotes they usually show a goofy video of themselves that blends references to pop culture with them acting silly. Sunday's version portrayed them as a couple of overgrown boys. Gates was shown in a small office -- just like all the other programmers have. Ballmer phones and says he thought it was supposed to be a play day, so Gates wheels in a look-alike dummy to sit in his chair and take his place and rushes off to meet Ballmer in a park. They ride those small scooters so popular in the U.S. right now. They slide down a slide, and Gates implores Ballmer to push him in a swing (prompting Ballmer to say, "It's always about you isn't it?").

They visit a "smart" grocery store where as Gates touches fruit it replies in a sexy voice, "I'm only ripe on Tuesday" or "I'm ripe right now." He buys a clearance-priced copy of "DOS for Dummies" for "a friend." Gates then heads to the dry cleaners to pick up a stack of sweaters exactly like the sweater he already has on.

Fashion was an odd part of the night.

Gates brought fashion designer Ralph Lauren's son David onto the stage to talk about how using Windows 2000 helped the Lauren empire to launch it's electronic-commerce Web site, David Lauren spoke about the "beautiful" ads his father's company produces, and how customers say they would like to be a part of those scenes. The Web site will allow users to talk to models and to win trips to the beautiful beach shown in the ads, he said.

He seemed to use the word "beautiful" a lot, though it could have been my imagination. I was wildly distracted by the huge photo of Ralph Lauren on the screens above the stage. It was a photo I had seen before, in one of his company's "beautiful ads." In the photo, Lauren stands at the open door of a pickup truck, his hands in leather gloves, wearing a T-shirt with not one, but two, shirts over the top of it, both unbuttoned and both tucked into his jeans. Note to Ralph: Real ranchers don't dress like dweebs.

David Lauren gave Gates a "beautiful" cashmere sweater at the end of the presentation. That's all well and good, but perhaps next year at Comdex Gates will let his rock-and-roller side shine through and effect a more appropriate look. Or maybe he'll just treat us to a little air guitar.

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