Bill Gates tries to upgrade his image Change: Microsoft's founder, under scrutiny by the Justice Department, has changed his look from geek robber baron to stylish warm and fuzzy.


SAN FRANCISCO -- See Bill smile with kids in classrooms and libraries.

See Bill poke fun at himself in a TV ad for golf clubs.

See Bill sing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" as he talks with Barbara Walters about being a dad.

See Bill boogie down on stage as fellow techies chant "Go, Bill, go!"

What a guy.

The reinventing of Bill Gates. Like his new Windows 98, the head of Microsoft Corp. is looking a lot more user-friendly, not to mention a lot better-looking.

The stereotypical techno nerd, with his trademark thick-framed glasses and mop-haired do, is looking downright dapper these days. Gone are the prepubescent bangs. His hair is now blow-dried, and actually has a part. His glasses are oval wire jobs that are all the rage. And his suit and shirt fit him to a T, thanks to his custom tailor and designer, Gian DeCaro, of DeCaro Santoria of Seattle.

"I've been getting calls from all over the country, telling me how good he looked," said DeCaro, after Gates showed up all spiffy in Chicago last month for the Comdex computer trade show.

But to observers, Gates has undergone more than a de-geeking. The multibillionaire software titan -- whose opponents have publicly compared him to robber barons and monopoly kingpins like John D. Rockefeller - seems to be doing everything these days but kissing babies and doing Oprah.

Cynics have suggested that the seemingly kinder, gentler, less nerdy Bill of late is a come-on, a high-stakes public relations campaign to mend the battered images of the software king and his empire.

Although bashing Gates and Microsoft has long been a favorite pastime in Silicon Valley and on countless Web sites, the company's anti-trust battle with the Justice Department has galvanized opponents.

To the anti-Microsoft contingent, the Justice Department's crusade further reinforces their view that Gates and company is the Pac Man of the industry, gobbling up everything in its path.

Things have gotten so bad that Microsoft reportedly has hired an army of image doctors from the world of politics, including pros from President Clinton's and Ronald Reagan's old camps.

And in an embarrassing, often quoted, expose recently in the Los Angeles Times, Microsoft was snagged in a plot to plant letters to the editor and opinion pieces singing the company's virtues. The aim, according to the newspaper, was to give the appearance of populist favor in regions where state attorneys general were considering their own anti-trust lawsuits against Microsoft.

To hear Microsoft tell it, news accounts of such shenanigans - from the new hairdo to the planted love letters - are much ado about nothing.

John Pinette, a spokesman for Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft, admits that the anti-trust suit has bruised the company's image. And sure, company officials are concerned. But he denies any publicity effort to have Gates win a popularity contest.

"A lot of people try to say there's a coordinated effort to reinvent Bill Gates," Pinette said. "There's not."

The so-called New and Improved Bill Gates has been around for a while, Pinette said. Gates has been wearing those glasses and nice suits for years, he said, and the billionaire has been visiting classrooms and libraries for years.

As for the timing of the Big Bertha golf commercial and the Barbara Walters interview - that's sheer coincidence. Gates did the commercial as a favor to the president of the golf club company, Pinette said. And Barbara's been asking for an interview forever. Gates just happened to have some time now to squeeze her in.

OK, let's say that the Bill Gates image has not had a dramatic makeover, a la Paula Jones, but has been evolving, like Madonna.

Why, then, if the change has been slow and steady, has it not been absorbed into the universal consciousness? Why is the first image of Bill Gates that pops into mind that of a pasty, willowy guy in grubby T-shirt, face hidden behind bangs and glasses?

It's an impression shared almost unanimously by a dozen professional image consultants and fashion mavens contacted for this article.

In their business, cattiness about public figures, including the PC leader is, well, not P.C.

But many image experts admitted it: In a word association game, Bill Gates Geek.

"He dresses like a geek from the audiovisual club in high school," is the impression of clothier Wilkes Bashford, who dresses clothes horse Larry Ellison, the honcho at the Silicon Valley-based software company Oracle.

"He gives the impression that he hasn't changed his style since he was 15," Bashford said. "You know, the short-sleeve shirts with the pencil protector in the pocket. In fact, he might be wearing some of the same clothes. They look kind of small."

But almost in the same breath, image experts defend what is popularly believed to be his look. The geek look works for him.

"He's so Bill Gates, he's got a Bill Gates look," said Jennifer Robin, an image consultant in San Francisco. "He is who he is."

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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