Why is This Man Laughing?

Bill Gates is not a nerd. Sure, he practices geekspeak. He sports a bowl haircut. He wears short-sleeved dress shirts. But he's also the most important businessman in the world and is poised to remain so well into the future. So, other than his $50 million home, the fact that he dropped out of Harvard, and his scripted, self-deprecating humor, what do we really know about him? More important, how does he use his power?

He pulls strings. Gates and Microsoft want you to think they quietly write code up in Redmond, Washington, wishing only to work in peace instead of being harassed by Janet Reno and her cronies. Hardly. In a relatively short time, Microsoft has built a startling network of political heavyweights to bully Congress. The result: a $1.7 billion tax cut Microsoft helped push through in 1997.

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He cheats. He uses a trade organization to crack down on foreign companies that pirate a variety of software programs—and then drops charges against them if they sign deals exclusively with Microsoft.

He lies. He says he'll stick to software, but he's already bought everything from Leonardo da Vinci to WebTV, and he'll need to keep buying—with an unprecedented grab for cross-industry capital—in order just to maintain and protect his empire. Meanwhile, he's going to be learning more—intimately more—about you in the process, to figure out how you fit into his empire.

He'll figure out exactly how to win you over, regardless of how successful the Department of Justice is in its attacks on Microsoft. Over time, his negative image will have little to do with his company; as he becomes more powerful, he also will become more invisible to the public.

Where do you want to go today? Better make up your mind, because the choices are narrowing fast.