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Bill Gates on world health
January 31, 2001: 2:07 p.m. ET

The Red Eye: Davos, Switzerland, World Economic Forum dispatch No. 2
By Tony Perkins
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SAN FRANCISCO ( - Bill Gates is one of the prime attractions at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.

This year's public appearances started with his usual on-the-record lunch with the editors-in-chief of over 50 top media operations. The next day he participated in back-to-back panel discussions in the main conference arena.

Interestingly, this year Mr. Gates weighted his message more toward health science than information science. In addition to his opening panel on "Meeting the imperatives of convergence," his other two sessions were called "Diseases that cause poverty" and "The globalization of AIDS."

Like everybody else in Davos, when it comes to Microsoft (MSFT: Research, Estimates)'s chief, the Red Eye is all ears. Read on and hear what it's like to lunch with Mr. Gates.

Food not phones

Each year at WEF, Bill Gates is sure to drop by and have lunch with the Media Leaders group, which includes more than 50 of the world's top journalists. When Bill showed up at the Posthotel on the main drag in Davos, he was clearly on edge. After greeting him, I asked him what he thought of his new president. "Politics is not my specialty," he snapped as he walked away.

Mr. Gates' apparent bad mood didn't deter me from following one of my best friends -- David Kirkpatrick, Fortune's senior technology editor -- to the head table so that I could get in on the chitchat.

Fortunately, Steve Shepard, the editor of Business Week, got Bill yapping about online bridge, which is one of the software king's passions. "I only play the top 100 bridge players," boasted Bill, who plays a two-hour match with Warren Buffett every Saturday. "My online bridge handle is 'Challenger X' and we all pretty much know each other," he explained. We also were told that sometimes he watches matches between other bridge masters, and thinks that is a great way to learn how to play.

  You need to feed people and cure people before you can begin the development cycle of education and entrepreneurship.  
  Bill Gates  
David then asked Bill about one of his other passions, namely how to help the 1.2 billion people in the world living on less than $1 per day. David has been writing recently about programs such as the one initiated by Hewlett-Packard (HWP: Research, Estimates) CEO Carly Fiorina to spread low-cost computing devices throughout the Third World to help raise its standard of living. Bill rolled his eyes and observed, "What good is a cell phone to someone who is starving or dying from a disease?"

As it turns out, Bill's primary mission at the WEF was to challenge governments and wealthy countries to correct what he sees as "an unbelievable market failure" to make basic vaccinations available to the world's poor.

The basic argument he was making to David Kirkpatrick, which he would share the next day with the entire conference, was that to help poor people, you have to deal with the life-and-death issues first.

During the discussion, Mr. Gates also expressed how astonished he was a few years back when he learned about the dismal level of funding available for medical research into diseases most prevalent in Third World countries. "We gave $50 million to help cure malaria, and I was amazed when they told me I had doubled the amount of funding in the area," he said.

He hasn't stopped there: On the day before Mr. Gates arrived by helicopter at this pristine ski village, he granted $100 million to support the development of an AIDS vaccine.

graphicDavid Kirkpatrick hung in there gallantly, continuing to contend that giving the poor access to the Internet would help them get on the economic fast track. "You need to feed people and cure people before you can begin the development cycle of education and entrepreneurship," Bill countered, smiling.

After the debate, Mr. Gates got up and addressed the entire crowd. He spoke about Microsoft's new .Net strategy and celebrated his new freedom to direct product development since he gave up the CEO reins to his longtime buddy Steve Ballmer.

"Last week, I wrote a 30-page memo on how we need to leverage the XML technology standard across our entire product line, which was more fun than I have had in three years," he said.

I suppose the chief software architect for Microsoft has the right to get pumped up about things like XML.

On a final note, I have to admit, watching Bill Gates impressed me. And it's not because I think .Net is a slam-dunk.

It is, as Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems (SUNW: Research, Estimates) told me earlier that day, "very ambitious," and the jury is still very much out on whether Microsoft can pull it off.

But I had to smile: three years earlier at the same lunch, Mr. Gates told the crowd that he would build a "whole new communication and computer platform," and that it was job No. 1 for him.

So there he was, three years later, showing us all that he does what he says and says what he means. And he's still having fun.

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