July 16, 2024

A Visit From Bill Gates

Bill Gates visited Princeton on Friday, accompanied by his father, a prominent Seattle lawyer who now heads the Gates Foundation, and by Kevin Schofield, a Microsoft exec (and Princeton alumnus) who helped to plan the university visits.

After speaking briefly with Shirley Tilghman, Princeton’s president, Mr. Gates spent an hour in a roundtable discussion with a smallish group of computer science faculty. I was lucky enough to be one of them. The meeting was closed, so I won’t give you a detailed play-by-play. Essentially, we told him about what is happening in computer science at Princeton; he asked questions and conversation ensued. We talked mostly about computer science education. Along the way I gave a quick description of the new infotech policy course that will debut in the spring. Overall, it was a good, high-energy discussion, and Mr. Gates showed a real passion for computer science education.

After the roundtable, he headed off to Richardson Auditorium for a semi-public lecture and Q&A session. (I say semi-public because there wasn’t space for everybody who wanted to get in; tickets were allocated to students by lottery.) The instructions that came with my ticket made it seem like security in the auditorium would be very tight (no backpacks, etc.), but in fact the security measures in place were quite unobtrusive. An untrained eye might not have noticed anything different from an ordinary event. I showed up for the lecture at the last minute, coming straight from the faculty roundtable, so I one of the worst seats in the whole place. (Not that I’m complaining – I certainly wouldn’t have traded away my seat in the faculty roundtable for a better seat at the lecture!)

After an introduction from Shirley Tilghman, Mr. Gates took the stage. He stood alone on the stage and talked for a half-hour or so. His presentation was punctuated by two videos. The first showed a bunch of recent Princeton alums who work at Microsoft talking about life at Microsoft in a semi-serious, semi-humorous way. (The highlight was seeing Corey in a toga.) The second video was a five-minute movie in which Mr. Gates finds himself in the world of Napoleon Dynamite. It co-stars Jon Heder, who played Napoleon in the movie. I haven’t seen the original movie but I’m told that many of the lines and gags in the video come from the movie. People who know the original movie seem to have found the video funny.

The theme of the lecture was the seamless coolness of the future computing environment. It was heavy on promotion and demonstrations of Microsoft products.

The Q&A was pretty interesting. He was asked how to reconcile his current cheerleading for C.S. education with his own history of dropping out of college. He had a funny and thoughful answer. I assume he’s had plenty of chances to hone his answer to that question.

A student asked him a question about DRM. His answer was fairly general, talking about the importance of both consumer flexibility and revenue for creators. He went on to say some harsh things about Blu-Ray DRM, saying that the system over-restricted consumers’ use and that its content-industry backers were making a mistake by pushing for it.

(At this point I had to leave due to a previous commitment, so from here on I’m relying on reports from people who were there.)

Another student asked him about intellectual property, suggesting that Microsoft was both a beneficiary and a victim of a strong patent system. Mr. Gates said that the patent system is basically sound but could benefit from some tweaking. He didn’t elaborate, but I assume he was referring to patent reform suggestions Microsoft has made previously.

After the Q&A, Mr. Gates accepted the “Crystal Tiger” award from a student group. Then he left for his next university visit, reportedly at Howard University.


  1. RE: Bill Gates Improves Education

    What Bill can help, local government can hurt… check this out:

    Gates Scholars to lose their Alma Mater?

    What is going on in Richmond and this world when bureaucrats are trying to ruin the most successful school the area has ever seen?

    details at http://gatesscholarsmaylosealmamater

  2. Thanks for the description of your time with Gates. Sounds like he’s keeping a lot of things close to the chest during the Q & A. I would love to hear more about his view of the OS movement in contrast to patents Microsoft so vigorously pursues. He must have a film crew at MS dreaming up cool clips for his lectures. Nice touch.

  3. Actually, I’m a Dartmouth alum, not a Princeton alum. Though I will say that I applied to and was accepted into he PhD program at Princeton… I ended up taking a job at Microsoft instead.

    I think it’s a little unfair to say that the presentation was heavy on promotion of Microsoft products. Bill demo’ed three things (Max, Xbox 360, and a futuristic “table-top” desk interface) and only one of the three is a Microsoft product — the other two may never be. Bill even said something nice about the iPod 🙂 The demos were intended to support the core points of Bill’s talk: that the industry is creating cool new technologies that are fun to design and build, there are a lot of hard and important problems still to solve, and that this is the golden age of computing.

    By the way, I don’t think you need to be secretive about the faculty roundtable. I thought it was a great discussion, and I don’t recall any topics in particular that were sensitive. I’ve blogged some comments of my own on my site — http://spaces.msn.com/members/kevinonthejob/
    And the full transcript of Bill’s talk is on his website: http://www.microsoft.com/billgates

    On the DRM issue, here’s a pointer to a good Ars Technica article that explains the issue. http://arstechnica.com/articles/paedia/hardware/microsoft-hd-dvd.ars

    Thanks to you and your colleagues for being such amazing hosts for us on your campus. It was great to hear about all your new projects, and the students asked fantastic questions.

  4. Gates just wants Windows Media DRM to be the only game in town. He is not being consumer-friendly. Typical MS ruse.

  5. J.B. Nicholson-Owens says

    Will Princeton put any effort into hosting a response talk from someone at the FSF?

    I’m sure there are people there who could provide insightful counterpoints and detailed examination of the issues Gates glossed over or was simply never asked about.