Early in 2000, the phone rang in my office. It was Microsoft's PR agency wondering if I wanted to talk to Bill Gates at NetWorld + Interop. I feigned checking my calendar.
So in May 2000 Gates and I sat down for 40 minutes in Las Vegas to talk. This was the first time I had met him personally after covering the company, and requesting an audience, for some four years. It was a time when anti-trust legislation was his main concern.
While some will want to ask if I noticed any devil horns protruding from his head, the fact is that I was struck by just how regular he seemed. (See a slideshow of Gates through the years.)
He even had a stain on his shirt about the size of a quarter on the opposite side from the breast pocket. I had noticed it on the JumboTron during his keynote, but there it was in living geek glory when I sat three feet from him. Billions in the bank and his handlers don't even have a back-up shirt, I thought. Or perhaps he doesn't care?
We easily drifted into conversation ranging from big picture details to technology minutiae as his handlers picked at the fruit plate on the back table secure in the knowledge that the former CEO could handle himself.
The only stipulation around our conversation was that I could ask only one question about the ongoing antitrust case, which would eventually brand Microsoft as a monopoly.
Our meeting was the last he would give before the US Department of Justice handed down its recommendations for punishment in Microsoft's infamous trial.
I decided to save my antitrust question until the end and then I just kept asking more figuring if he didn't want to answer he wouldn't. Some of it went off the record.
But our discussion revealed to me that the case was clearly personal for Gates. Not just around the company he had built but also his reputation as a business man and as a person. He was also disgusted with his belief others were using the case to further their own personal/career agendas.
On topics other than antitrust, Gates was engaging. He hinted at what is now Microsoft's software plus services strategy some eight years before it was officially announced.
After getting past the initial warm-up it was more like chatting with your neighbour after dropping by to borrow a cup of sugar than verbal sparring with someone who is arguably the most powerful man in software.
It's not that I didn't ask him some tough questions, including the beating Microsoft was taking over its implementation of the Kerberos specification -- it's biggest effort to date around "standardized" security mechanisms.
Gates was well versed on the smallest details about the spec, including its "auth data field" that was open to vendor interpretation, and how Microsoft had used that field when building its implementation.