During a question-and-answer session on the popular Internet site Reddit, Microsoft founder and Chairman Bill Gates reveals the answer to the burning question: What do you get a man that can buy just about anything for his birthday?
"Free software. Just kidding. Books actually," Gates answered during an Ask Me Anything (AMA) session on the site, which calls itself the front page of the Internet. Gates' AMA has attracted quite the virtual crowd too, garnering more than 18,000 comments shortly after it ended.
As a comparison, US President Barack Obama's AMA yielded more than 24,000 comments.
Gates answered a variety of questions on a diverse set of topics, with a focus on his personal life, emerging technologies, Microsoft and his philanthropic efforts of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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On the personal side
Many questioners wondered about personal anecdotes. "Since becoming wealthy, what's the cheapest thing that gives you the most pleasure?" Gates was asked. "Kids. Cheap cheeseburgers. Open Course Ware courses," Gates replied. Before the text-based Q&A, Gates also answered some warm-up questions before the online chat started via a video. "How much money is in your wallet?" "I don't always carry a wallet," Gates admitted. "But I've got one with me and it looks like I've got $100." In his spare time Gates said he likes to play tennis and bridge (the card game), and tour power plants, garbage dumps and missile silos with his children, in addition to reading and watching courses. He doesn't believe leaving a massive fortune to his children is in their best interest, reflecting a view held by fellow billionaire Warren Buffett.
One of the richest men in the world realizes that money can't buy everything, though: When asked about something that needs to be changed that money will not help with, Gates went political. "It would be nice if all governments were as rational as the Nordic governments -- reaching compromise and providing services broadly," he wrote, adding that African governments have been weak, which is difficult to change with money as well.
Does Gates still code? "Not as much as I would like to," he said, adding that he's surprised new languages have not made coding simpler.
For a more off-the-wall question, one user asked Gates if he would rather fight 100 duck-size horses or one horse-size duck. "I'm not sure about the specifics, but in general I like taking on big problems, things like vaccines, so I guess you could call that a horse-sized duck."
He discussed his philanthropic work, with one questioner asking if his goal of eradicating the polio disease is realistic given anti-vaccination movements in some areas of the world. Gates says it will require raising funds and great execution, but "we should be able to finish by 2018."
Another user asked him what emerging technologies he believes could cause a big stir for consumers similar to the advent of the personal computer. Gates says robots, pervasive screens and speech interaction with technology will change the way we look at computers. "Once seeing, hearing and reading (including handwriting) work very well you will interact in new ways," Gates wrote.
Gates was also asked about his take on the recent efforts against a free and open Internet, specifically citing legislation like SOPA -- the Stop Online Piracy Act. Gates believes the ongoing debate represents a balance between free and pay-for software. "It has been interesting [sic] see people inventing hybrid models. Even stuff that is pretty commercial often has free versions for some audiences." He also cited the tension over online identity. "I am surprised how little progress has been made in the identity space but it will improve."
Gates and the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had a mutual respect for each other, Gates said, seeing each other regularly over the years, including just months before Jobs died. Gates said he mostly uses Windows machines, but he's tried all of Apple's products.
Does Gates have any regrets about products or services Microsoft could have launched but didn't? Gates said Microsoft had a "rich database as the client/cloud store that was part of a Windows release that was before its time." The company may work to integrate that into future products, though. "This is an idea that will remerge [sic] since your cloud store will be rich with schema rather than just a bunch of files and the client will be a partial replica of it with rich schema understanding."
Providing a little bit of a product pitch, Gates said he just received his Surface Pro last week -- "and it is very nice." For the AMA, he used a Perceptive Pixel display running Windows 8 with a touch whiteboard. "These will come down in price over time and be pervasive," he says.
"Do you guys really use Bing?" someone asked of the Microsoft search engine. Without explicitly answering the question, Gates said, "seriously Bing is the better product at this point. Try the challenge."
Network World staff writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing and social collaboration. He can be reached at BButler@nww.com and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW.
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